“Encores” at Piven Theatre

Joyce Piven and her late husband, Byrne Piven, began telling stories 40 years ago at their eponymous theater.

Creating a distinctive theatrical style, they started with a show based on some of Anton Chekhov’s stories.

Evanston’s small but influential Piven Theatre is now celebrating its 40th anniversary with show aptly titled “Encores.” It isn’t a rerun of that original Chekhov show, but the formula is the same. Three of the Russian writer’s classic short stories move from the page to the stage, with actors fluidly blending traditional stage dialogue with narration.

Most of the actors are very youthful — young enough that they could be grandchildren of their highly esteemed director, Joyce Piven. Although she’s officially retired, holding the title of artistic director emeritus, Piven clearly isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s still practicing her craft and bringing her “story theater” methods to a new generation of artists and audiences.

The three stories in “Encores” were adapted for the stage by three playwrights whose names will be familiar to Piven fans. The first two — “After the Theatre,” adapted by Polly Noonan, and “The Trick,” adapted by Stephen Fedo — are brief and charming vignettes about young people trying to figure out what it means to fall in love. Both tales seem to taking place in the present, but then they take on the wistful air of cherished but bittersweet memories.

The third story, “Lady With a Dog,” was adapted by one of Piven’s most famous and acclaimed alums, playwright Sarah Ruhl, and it’s the most substantial segment in the hourlong trilogy. Daniel Smith and Joanne Underwood capture the emotional mysteries of a married man and woman who ineluctably fall into an affair.

In typical Piven style, the actors both show us what they’re feeling and tell us about it. That sort of double layering risks seeming redundant, but at the Piven Theatre, it creates the sensation of memories coming alive on the stage. The only major flaw is that it leaves you wanting more when the hour is over.

“Encores: After the Theatre and Other Stories” continues through May 20 at Piven Theatre Workshop, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. For tickets and details, call 847-866-8049 or visit www.piventheatre.org.

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