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This Fringe Festival, Philadelphia theater artist Justin Jain debuts his solo show The Dangers of Tobacco, a queer Filipino retelling of Chekhov’s one-act play by the same name. Jain’s piece seamlessly mixes the original text, personal anecdote, dance, and audience interaction in a zany and masterful modernization that runs through Monday, September 11, at the Fidget Space.
Dreaming for yourself
For those unfamiliar with The Dangers of Tobacco, it features a singular character, Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin. Nyukhin, a lifelong smoker and curmudgeon, unwillingly gives a lecture on the harmful effects of tobacco. Very little in the monologue is said about the titular subject; instead, Nyukhin digresses into rants about his overbearing wife, his endless responsibilities at work, and lays bare his unfulfilled dreams and regrets.
Chekhov’s play is the container from which Jain himself emerges. Jain uses all of Chekhov’s original text; like Nyukhin, Jain digresses in order to share his life story. While actors are often forced to hide parts of who they are in order to become a character, Jain leans in and gives himself permission to show up as himself, or at least a character of himself. Written, directed, and co-choreographed by himself, Jain showcases his talents as a playwright, actor, director, choreographer, and dancer. Solo shows where the artist wears so many hats can often feel sloppy or uneven, but Jain masterfully pulls this off. The pacing is sharp, the segues seamless, and the piece thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.
Jain blurs the line between performer, character, and audience by intermittently breaking the fourth wall and directly speaking to the audience—at times earnestly asking audience members how they are processing the piece. After disclosing his own struggles with depression, Jain passes around a survey to ask the audience if they have depression or anxiety: yes/no/not sure. On opening night, over half of the audience struggled with anxiety or depression. Jain’s piece, at times deeply vulnerable and tender, invites the audience into a safe space to feel less alone.
When Jain plays himself, he shares stories about growing up as a Filipino kid in a white community, as a gay kid in a deeply religious household, as a person who struggles with depression in a neurotypical world, and as a queer Filipino theater artist and professor trapped in primarily white institutions (PWIs). While broaching many difficult topics, Jain’s irreverent humor keeps the audience laughing with jokes about salivating over Jesus’s abs and physical comedy.
Like any Chekhovian character, Jain’s ruminations are sometimes stuck in the past. Jain dives into the Philippines's complicated history of colonization while intertwining his familial history and intergenerational trauma. Jain shares experiences of being tokenized and seen as the exceptional (queer BIPOC person) in the PWIs of which he is a part. Theater is white. Academia is white. And so much more are the people in power in these institutions. But Jain hopes for a world in which he is the default rather than being a person who checks multiple boxes for PWIs' diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Throughout the play, Jain balances on the knife’s edge between manic comedy and gut-wrenching tragedy, drawing both hearty laughs and moments of uncomfortable silence from the audience. As he plays himself, he (d)evolves, along with Nyukhin, in moments of anguish, farce, melancholy, and ultimately hope. Jain’s retelling of The Dangers of Tobacco is an exhilarating, emotionally intimate, deeply personal, universally relatable, and refreshingly modern retelling of a classic. Jain’s solo show encapsulates the best parts of Fringe—daring, original passion projects that stretch the imagination of what modern theater can be. Don’t miss your chance to laugh, cry, feel seen, and feel held in this irreverent and poignant solo show.
What, When, Where
The Dangers of Tobacco. By Anton Chekhov and Justin Jain; choreography by Melanie Cotton and Jain. Tickets are on a sliding scale of $5-$50; suggested price of $25. Through September 11, 2023, at the Fidget Space, 1714 N Mascher Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Fidget is on the fourth floor of the building and is not wheelchair-accessible by elevator.
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