& & by Sheri Boggs & & & &

Every writer does it at some point. You know what I'm talking about. You want to save the world, so you go and write a short story, a novel, a play, a screenplay or, God forbid, an opera, that will plumb the depths of human emotion and force the complacent -- but captive -- audience to see the error of their ways. It doesn't matter where you set it -- the streets of French Revolution-era Paris, the arenas of ancient Rome, or in the case of would-be playwright Chad Betchet, the war-torn shores of the Black Sea -- as long as you push your characters to the point where they blaspheme God and curse the very day they were born. If you can work in a gang-rape by brutal Russian soldiers or the suicide of your dearest character, so much the better. This, you reason, is what art is all about.

Or is it? Chad struggles to give his creations Nikolai and Nadja speeches worthy of their despair. They come to the stage in turns; a more gaunt and hopeless pair has seldom been seen. The snow, it is cold and indifferent. The conditions they are forced to endure, so cruel. And yet, when Chad wanders away from his typewriter for a moment, the two are springing over his desk with the joy of mischievous first graders to take a turn at writing their own destinies.

And this is where the Firth Chew Studio Theatre's production of Crimea River takes off. The audience quickly sees that Chad's creations have the better of him. As he struggles to finish his play for the Hostage Planet Theatre, Nikolai and Nadja struggle just as hard to exert their own free will, arguing that there's more than one way to learn about the human condition than a miserable end on the Russian steppes.

The script, by Puget Sounders Lee Howard and Greg Gamble (The Last Touchy-Feely Drama), quickly sets up the level of hilarity to expect and sustains it throughout. The "cold, indifferent snow" of Nikolai's initial monologue becomes, in Nikolai and Nadja's rewrite, among other things, "cold, indifferent birthday cake." For fans of absurdist humor and a certain degree of wordplay, it's indicative of the fun to come. Director Maynard Villers keeps a mostly tight rein on the pacing as well, ensuring that the best lines are couched within a fast-moving current of visual and verbal comedy.

Patrick Treadway steals the show as Nikolai, whose threadbare Russian suffering gives way to loose-limbed enthusiasm and joie de vivre. Kathie Doyle-Lipe is also very good as Nadja, particularly when, in the first act, she jumps up on Chad's desk to perform a little burlesque the likes of which haven't been seen since Snoopy first broke into a "happy dance." One part Gypsy Rose Lee, one part bartender and all the rest self improvement guru Anthony Robbins, Nadja coquettishly points out that Nikolai's "half-empty glass needs filling."

As Chad, Eric Paine adopts a bemused sense of alarm that perfectly suits both his character's need to be an Artist and his complete lack of control over his own creation. Playing his slacker roommate, Kenny, is M. Daniel Magallon, whose half-loose, flopping sock, Keanu Reeves delivery and baked expression bring some of the loudest laughter throughout the show. And Jone Campbell Bryan was enjoyable as well, packing enough testosterone into her part as the feminist Tituba Terhune, she hardly needed the fake "protest" mustache her character wears.

In keeping with the Studio Theatre's experimental nature, certain playful elements of the production deserve notice. A plastic frog on the coffee table was both weird and never explained (could it be a reference to the frog explosion in the Crimean region due to floods three years ago?), and those who could read the "Robitussin" label on Kenny's milk jug of medicine got a good laugh as well. The play opens with a song by Nirvana, which at first seems merely coincidental and not quite part of the show. But when it closes, to the strains of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," the effect is both deliberate and worthy.

None of these elements, none of the acting -- not even hilarious lines like when a character is trying to leave and declares the cuff of his coat to be "dilated to nine centimeters" -- is worth anything without a compelling drama, and Crimea River delivers. Nihilism, atheism, existential angst and good old purple prose are all tossed up for examination, and Chad is forced to see that all of his ideas about art and the human condition have come from the dry old theories of his college professors and his own pretentious longings.

During the second act, the momentum inexplicably bottlenecks, but when the Virgin Mary (Jone Campbell Bryan, again) appears -- having been a running joke in the first act of the play -- and explains a thing or two to Chad about what life is all about, the effect is both cathartic and surprisingly wonderful. I won't spoil it for you here, but her speech is right on the money and had more than a few people in the audience transfixed and nodding. In short, Crimea River satisfies on a number of levels. If you're looking for swift, surefooted comedy, it's just the thing. If you're looking for answers, you might come away with what you've been looking for.

Spokane River Clean-Up @ Downtown Spokane

Sat., Sept. 26, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
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