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From Russia with drawl
'Southern Fried Chekhov' is a cross-cultural comedy
Taking Chekhov down south: Ashton Carr and Pete Mellen, in rehearsal. (Photo: Bill DeYoung)

With the exception of Shakespeare, few playwrights attract as much analysis and interpretation as Anton Chekhov, the Russian author of The Seagull and other dramatic works deep in subtext and subtleties.

Chekhov (1860–1904) is among the most admired and emulated writers of the past 100 years. He was a licensed physician who once said, in truly Chekhovian fashion, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” He was also a prodigious short–story writer.

Beloved for his detailed dramatic works, Chekhov was also a humorist. This didn’t get past Eric S. Kildow, who teaches and directs for the theater program at Armstrong Atlantic State University. Kildow decided to adapt two of the master’s more comedic works, farces called The Proposal and The Bear, to a strictly Southern setting.

The show, onstage this weekend at Muse Arts Warehouse, is called Southern Fried Chekhov.

“When people think of Chekhov, they tend to think of his more serious plays, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters,” Kildow says. “The reality is, Chekhov intended those to be funny. He’s a man who really does have an eye and an ear for comic situations, and the ridiculous in life.”

AASU theater vet Eve Butler performed the literary surgery on the two short plays.

“We changed a lot of the idiom from which Chekhov wrote,” explains Kildow. “Eve started with a couple of public domain translations, which were clunky and unwieldy. So she adapted them into speakable text, changed the idioms and changed cultural references to reflect a Savannah setting.”

It’s not as sacrilegious as it sounds, Kildow insists. “The thing is, you don’t change the jokes. The core of the humor and the situation remains absolutely the same, it’s just some of the wordplay winds up being different.

“And given the fact that it was a translation to begin with, it was different from what Chekhov originally wrote in Russian.”

For what is essentially an experiment in theater, Kildow knows he’ll attract regular Savannah play–goers, theater students – and, hopefully, those simply curious to see what he’s up to.

“You have to walk a fine line between textual fidelity and updating,” he admits. “And what can you do to get people to swallow Chekhov?

“In my research, I haven’t found when a Chekhov play was done anywhere in Savannah, at least over the last 10 years.”

Southern Fried Chekhov has been underwritten by theater fans – plus Kildow’s friends and family – through an online process called crowdfunding. It was an experiment – just like the concept of the production itself – and it worked out well.

It was, he says, a way to appeal to those people most intrigued by his idea, “as opposed to trying to reach too deeply into your own pockets, especially since artists often don’t have money.

“Or sort of picking away at a single donor for a long period of time. You throw it to the winds and see if you can get a lot of people you know to just toss you $5 each.”

Southern Fried Chekhov

Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road

When: At 8 p.m. Sept. 23–25

Admission: $15 public, $10 students