Delightful comic ‘The Sneeze’ opens Compass Rose’s new home

Compass Rose Theater’s production of The Sneeze is a delightful comic evening. Michael Frayn has translated and adapted six short stories by Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, these short works are a wonderful way to begin Compass Rose’s new tenure as a resident company at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Matthew Crawford as Smirnov, Ali Leary as Popova, and Alana Lyons as Luka in ‘The Bear.’ Photo by Stan Barou.

Joe Mucciolo gives a comic intensity to his roles. As Pavel, the famous writer in “Drama,” he utters exasperated asides and comments at the aspiring playwright (Christian Wilson) interrupting him to read from her interminable work. In “The Sneeze,” his gestures and expressions perfectly capture the fear as he sneezes on the back of an important government official (Matthew Crawford). In “Plots” he practices his statement to a meeting of doctors, energetically defending himself and accusing others before stepping onto the desk mad with power.

Matthew Crawford gives great dignity to his characters. In “Swan Song,” the most serious of the plays, he plays an elderly comic actor terrified of having wasted his life in the theater. He realizes that “I don’t trust the audience” and reminisces about a failed love affair with a woman who loved him as a clown but not for a potential husband. His loneliness and fear shine through, as does his skill when he does speeches from King Lear and Othello. In “The Bear,” his impatience and anger as a creditor come through as he seeks to collect on a debt. He roars for vodka and berates the poor maid (Alana Lyons) who tries to get him to leave. His comic turn with the widow (Ali Leary) is perfect, capturing the absurdity of his feelings.

Christian Wilson as Maraskov and Joe Mucciola as Pavel in ‘Drama.’ Photo by Stan Barou.

Christian Wilson has excellent comic chops. Wearing a dress in “Drama” he barges into the writer’s office and reads from the play. He does all the voices, male and female, and prances across the stage in imitation of galloping horses. As the suitor in “The Proposal,” he captures the nervousness of a man preparing to propose marriage, gripping his chest and arm in “heart palpitations.” Arguing with his intended (Ali Leary), he comically stumbles and stutters, at one point collapsing onto a table.

Ali Leary gives great strength to her roles. A widow in “The Bear,” she stands up to the creditor’s insistence, unused to such “loudness” and demanding that he leave. She responds to his sarcastic thoughts on women with equal vehemence against men, even her own dead husband. She plays the comic twist at the end with great delight. She is sweetness and light as intended in “The Proposal,” until a trivial argument with her suitor ensues when she yells and belittles him, insistent that she is right and he is wrong.

Alana Lyons plays the maid Luka with great emotion. In “The Bear,” terrified of the creditor, she exclaims and begs him to leave, at one point dropping to the floor.

The stage, designed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, is simple, with a few benches and stools placed throughout as needed. In “Swan Song,” a bench hides the main character at first. The costumes, also designed by Merry-Browne, hark back to late 19th-century Russia, with top hats and dark suits for formal occasions, lighter jackets and colorful vests for casual wear, and long dresses for the women. As the maid, Luka wears a white apron and cap.

Christian Wilson as Lomov, Joe Mucciola as Chubukov, and Ali Leary as Natalya in ‘The Proposal.’ Photo by Stan Barou.

Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows dims the light between each play. In “Drama” the lights focus on Pavel as he shares his thoughts on the absurdity of his situation, before moving to his guest acting out the drama. In “Swan Song,” as Svetlovidov enacts a scene from King Lear, the lights create a lightning effect.

Lucinda Merry-Browne does a wonderful job as director. The actors navigate the stage and each other perfectly and have excellent comic timing, creating lots of laughs. The space at Maryland Hall feels well suited for Compass Rose, and The Sneeze is a fun start to their new home.

Running Time: Approximately Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Sneeze plays through February 12, 2023, presented by Compass Rose Theater performing in Room 308 of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD. For tickets ($35–$65), purchase online.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional inside Maryland Hall and the theater.