THE STATED MISSION OF BOOK-IT Repertory Theatre is to "transform great literature into great theater." In turn, Book-It hopes their literary stagings will inspire patrons to scurry back and read (or re-read) the original works. It's a simple plan, really, exhibiting a big-hearted, pedagogic logic, like Sesame Street for grown-ups. With their production of Chekhov's Romance With Double Bass, Book-It had nothing to worry about with me. I read all the time, I like Chekhov, I just never go to the theater. To win me over, all Book-It had to do was to keep me from nosing back into the press kit during the performance. This they did.

In fact, there were times when I caught myself grinning like an idiot. At these moments the play well captured the delicate spirit of Chekhov's work. Here, as the prose alternately whispered and roared from the actors' lips, was that unmistakably moody, undeniably Russian perspective on unrequited love and all its attendant vanities, fears, and misgivings. Chekhov was adept at homing in on the circumstantial minutiae of his characters' irreconcilable desires, and Book-It does a fine job of capturing these small, failed passions on its minimalist set. Particularly impressive were the quieter scenes of domestic stalemate, where the poignantly stilted dialogue tumbled and fell into the silent gaps of muted love and dumb arrogance.

As for the critical implications of director Russ Banham's claim that Chekhov is funnier than we think: I'm not so sure. Chekhov isn't really yuk-yuk funny (though he can be silly). There were passages in which the hilarity of the work was overinterpreted, becoming forced and slapsticky. What's funny in Chekhov is funny, without exorbitant running around. The most engaging scenes were the ones in which Chekhov's simple language was simply stated--played straight, if you like--and where the tersely ironic lines were given just a slight, significant nudge with the barest gesture or glance. Between the lines, and without all the thespian tomfoolery, is where Book-It most successfully tapped into Chekhov's wonderfully melancholic nature, and there was just enough of this to sustain the play as a whole.

Support The Stranger