Reviewing theater on The Morning After is ruining my life.
Saturday night, I saw Jade Esteban Estrada in Chek It, Baby, a one-man gay cabaret which fancifully interprets the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s four masterpieces, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, through the lens of a one-man gay cabaret.
It was the second weekend of the Chekhov, a heroic little theater weekend at the Byrant-Lake Bowl, featuring sixteen theater companies “breathing new life into the work of Anton Chekhov through inspired interpretations, inventive adaptations and original multi-disciplinary performance.” I’m not going to fib: it was cold out, and the prospect of reviewing experimental theater inspired by Chekhov seemed a little Theater Geek 101. I was dreading it, really, dreading a dual interpretation of Chekhov’s monologue On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, one a straight monologue, the other a libretto (possibly with puppets). But I did the honorable thing—I dug into my couch, and waited to leave my apartment until the very last second. Flipping through the channels, landing on Tootsie on TCM for a little while, watching some coverage of the election, and then, unbelievably, yet somehow appropriately, discovering my ex-girlfriend Bonnie was premiering her new stand-up special on Comedy Central. My decision was made for me, right? (Isn’t it always, when you leave it to the whim of the remote?) I decided to blow off Tobacco and watch my own personal Trigorin do a half-hour on her new baby.
I am the seagull, dude.
I haven’t dated Bonnie in years, but it was a huge bummer: Bonnie on Comedy Central; me, sentenced to reviewing the Chekhov Festival at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
But I made it to the late show dammit, because, to paraphrase Nina, “I am a writer!”
Yeah—probably a mistake.
Okay, I really don’t have anything against Estrada, whom the Topeka Capitol-Journal calls “one of the finest American solo theatre artists of the twenty-first century.” And I don’t have anything against the eleven other lonely souls sitting in the Bryant-Lake Bowl’s theater space, all of whom, based on where and when they laughed during the show, must have been huge Chekhov freaks, and most of whom, based on my extensive eavesdropping, spoke fluent Russian. No, I’m just feeling sorry for myself. And not for going solo right after watching an ex-girlfriend do jokes about her new baby on Comedy Central; no, more for going to experimental gay cabaret with millions of inside Chekhov jokes—and getting most of them.
What the hell is happening to me? Estrada came out to this techno music, making these surreal hand gestures, with his hair waxed into four dramatic spikes, a face full of clown makeup, flashing this gigantic grin. It was like somebody crushed a handful of Adderall into John Leguizamo’s applesauce. Terrifying. He started out by doing a skit that re-set Chekhov’s Three Sisters on a Maury-esque daytime talk show. I laughed at Natasha as an entitled lower-class striver because people like her are actually on Maury all the time. Answering Maury’s inquisition about her cuckolding of Andrei with that specific brand of daytime defiance, “Well, if my husband doesn’t care, I don’t see how it’s any of your business.” It was genuinely funny. I didn’t laugh very much when Estrada flipped on a bouffant wig, squeezed into a tight, short lime green dress and clambered on top a piano to sing a camp torch song inspired by Uncle Vanya, but his evangelical interpretation of The Cherry Orchard had its moments. And his coup de grace, in which he casts extras for a Hollywood version of The Seagull (starring Charo as Nena: “I am a seagull. Coochie, coochie!”), well, it was ridiculous and funny (if not ridiculously funny).
So yeah, I think I enjoyed Chek It, Baby. And I am profoundly disturbed by this.
It’s pretty clear there is nobody with whom I will ever really share a po-mo appreciation of Chekhov. I refuse to go combat boot, pierce-my-face, theater-class-loony like half the crowd in there, and unlike the other half, I’m not ready for my wild old Rooskie phase yet, either. I mean, I get it. Chekhov doesn’t have the appeal of an indie band. Or an Oscar-nominated movie. Or a great new restaurant. I am going to end up deranged, laughing maniacally to myself at John McCain-as-Lopakhin during late-night experimental theater festivals.
But, wait a minute. Check it out: of all the great nineteenth-century Russian writers, Chekhov is the most relatable to somebody that saw There Will Be Blood, just bought the new Vampire Weekend, and loves the cauliflower fritters at the 112. Because Chekhov still works in a world where you can run across your ex-girlfriend on Comedy Central. He’s been there before. He would’ve laughed at me—because he laughed at himself, even when it sucked. He wrote about dating artists, and he wrote about lazy writers, not to mention selfish mothers, jackass supervisors, and absentminded siblings, all people who surround us still. His characters are real—realer than Shakespeare’s by far—and ready for today’s stage, even if it’s late-night, one-man gay cabaret at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
So please don’t keep making me do this by myself. Chek is worth it. Please.
The Chekhov Festival continues at Bryant-Lake Bowl through March 1, chekhovfestival.org
 She only did the first ten minutes on her new baby. Needless to say, the second twenty minutes of her set were much funnier.