Nina, Redmoon Theater, at Humboldt Park boathouse. How far can Redmoon’s surrealist shtick be taken? How often can the company’s formula–spectacle, puppetry, rickety big band–be invoked before growing stale? The new Chekhov cycle (three takes on The Seagull, of which Nina is the first) meets these questions head-on, pushing an absurd routine to absurd extremes. And in time the kickoff work may be justified by its companions. But judged alone, Nina throws the signature treatment’s limits into sharp relief.

The whimsical tableaux are gorgeous as ever, and the cast plow through their vaudevillian paces with precision and grace, but the song-and-dance and puppet elements feel like obligatory embroidery despite the play-within-a-play structure that should justify them. Like a giant jack-in-the-box bursting with nothing, the company’s elaborate stagecraft machine fails to really communicate Chekhov’s soft-core nihilism. Reducing layer upon layer of philosophic and verbal nuance to a sequence of stylized entrances and exits, adapter-director Jim Lasko largely flattens the drama. And absent the diversion of the master’s sparklingly depressive dialogue–almost all of which has been excised–the play seems longer than its two hours.

But the climactic moment unfolds with rapturous eloquence, thanks especially to Jim Slonina as Kostya: his silent-movie evocations are a cut above the rest. And the Humboldt Park environs are winningly bucolic. It’s all a feast for the eyes and ears; perhaps the next, more text-heavy installment will be as generous to heart and mind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Ewert.