THE FOUR PERFORMERS in Theatre Smith-Gilmour very nearly didn't come to Hong Kong from their home-town, Toronto, this week. They almost didn't bring their dark-humoured take on four short stories by Anton Chekhov because of a debate that has seemed to paralyse the North American arts community since the attack on the United States. Is it, the debaters ask, frivolous to perform plays when other people are grieving? The reason they did eventually decide to come is because the members of Theatre Smith-Gilmour believe that not only is acting in the face of tragedy not frivolous but that it is quite the opposite. 'It's the most important thing we as actors can do,' says Dean Gilmour who co-founded the company with his French wife, Michele Smith, 21 years ago. 'In a time when people are struggling to understand some difficult concepts and some inhuman activities, it is vital that there should be a chance to ask questions and to reflect on big issues. And the theatre is a place where those questions and that reflection can happen.' Smith and Gilmour met when they were in their 20s, as students at the Lecoq School of Mime in Paris. They founded their company in 1980 and over the years their trademark theatre style has emerged as a form of clowning - dark themes wrapped in a cloak of naivety. Which is why Chekhov's short stories - which wrap up the Russian writer's complex ideas in simple domestic details - fit so cleanly into their repertoire. Chekhov (1860-1904) is often regarded as one of the pioneers of modern short-story writers because of his definitive style - tales that stress symbolism and mood rather than a straight plot. He was also an outstanding playwright: works such as The Cherry Orchard and The Sea Gull are staples in any good repertoire. Chekhov's Shorts - which has its premiere outside North America tonight - begins on a train somewhere in Eastern Europe. Four 'men' in greatcoats - played by the company's two female and two male actors - sit warming themselves, leaning against their huge brown suitcases. And throughout the journey, as ludicrous things happen in the compartment, other preposterous Chekhovian things begin to take place in the travellers' imaginations as each tells a story. The world they conjure up is a deeply and darkly humorous one where little dogs join the circus, coffin-makers grieve for losses they have almost forgotten, and Jewish orchestra musicians play impossibly sad melodies with equally humorous gestures. The inspiration for the play came from a train journey the troupe took in the Balkans in 1997. It was a tour through Macedonia, Romania, Moldova and northern Greece just a year before the region blew up into mayhem. To Smith and Gilmour the absurdity of the area's social structure was never quite so clear as when they were on a train. On one journey from Transylvania to Belgrade, for example, they had three separate train conductors, each demanding bribes from the company to be allowed to travel further. The whole compartment was polarised, with a group of Romanian students taking their side against what they felt was an inhospitable level of corruption. 'I was ready to do battle,' Gilmour remembers. 'Then I did my calculations and realised we were talking less than US$20 [HK$156]. I said, 'Never mind, who cares'.' So the travelling actor lost his dollars but his company gained several characters who would later appear in Chekhov's Shorts. The audiences in those areas were some of the best and most appreciative they had ever encountered. 'In Moldova the people had no money to buy anything in the shops,' says Smith. 'But the theatres were packed.' Gilmour feels places like that make him understand what theatre is about. 'I had an e-mail a few weeks ago from the director of the Skopje Arts Festival [in Macedonia] inviting us to perform. He said we had to come, it's so important.' So far the company has not raised the funding. Canadian arts bodies do not appear to feel Skopje is a destination worth sponsoring. They are wrong, Gilmour insists. Taking theatre to a place where the art symbolises life and death and everything in between is not an act of frivolous charity; it is an act of nourishment, he says. Chekhov's Shorts. Tonight until Sunday 8pm. Sunday matinee 3pm. Cultural Centre Studio Theatre. Tickets $100, $150. Tel: 2734 9009.