Falling for young fruit

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You know how you feel about brussels sprouts?

You know you should probably eat them. You know they’re dense.  You know that people are doing exciting things with them but you’re worried they might be like the ones you remember from your youth - approached so dutifully that there was hardly any life left in them.

“A Month in the Country,” the Turgenev classic, is basically the theatrical equivalent of brussels sprouts. It’s a play you probably haven’t seen and if you’ve heard about it, it’s likely through Chekhov (it’s often referred to as the play that inspired Chekhov to write for the stage).

Fortunately, Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of “Three Days in the Country,” the Patrick Marber adaptation of the Turgenev-   is like the chef that throws a little bacon into the brussels sprouts and makes you reconsider the whole affair.

Mr. Marber’s title acknowledges the changing times.  Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” becomes “Three Days in the Country.”

If you’ve ever seen a Chekhov play the setup will be familiar.  We’re on a large country estate. We have our familiar Russian retinue: a country doctor, a professor, a distracted husband, a bored, histrionic wife, the servants, the sexy young tutor, et cetera - 13 in all: an ensemble too big for a regional theater to afford these days; and characters with enough detail that you need strong actors across the board.

A perfect setup for Antaeus: a classic with a big cast that no one else can really tackle competently.

The basic story line centers around the restless wife who falls for her son’s much younger tutor. Naturally, orbiting this dalliance are a slew of characters desirous of being coupled off in one form or another. Patrick Marber’s adaptation plays up the biting comedy of unrequited love in all its forms.

Like most Antaeus productions, this one is “partner cast” meaning there are two full casts who alternate performances: it’s one of Antaeus’ foibles that make them as an ensemble almost undirectable.  With the director outnumbered two to one on every role, it comes down to a particular cast deciding they want to be in the same play - a decision Antaeus doesn’t always make. Happily, the cast I saw headed up by Nike Doukas and Leo Marks are all working to the same end.

I’m a sucker for the muscular way Leo Marks mines every turn of phrase and intonation - and like Nike Doukas’ manic performance you might find it a bit much but you can’t help but admire the gusto.  Armin Shimerman is a hoot as the annoying country doctor who ends up proposing at precisely the moment his back seizes up … but it’s actually a moment with no text and a few berries that’s worth the trip to Glendale.  

Almost at the center of the play’s two and a half hours is a simple scene with three lovelorn men sitting on a bench (Marks, Shimerman and the wonderful Greg Itzin) - between them a basket of fresh berries.  The way they discover and become entranced by this youthful fruit before it’s snatched away is the whole play in an instant.

“Three Days in the Country” plays at the Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale through August 26th.