By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Elaina McBroom
At parties attended by theater folk, you mention the name Anton Chekhov and the mood turns thick with piety. To lift an image from Janet Malcolm’s book Reading Chekhov, it’s as though a small deer has just come into the room.
Why is it most American productions of Chekhov spray-paint Chekhovian Irony onto the stage so thickly that the actors stick to the samovar? (Women sitting languidly on white wicker chairs twirling linen parasols; men in cream-colored suits gazing wistfully at the horizon — and this from a playwright who arrived at the theater from vaudeville.) The answer provides a kind of window onto who we are as Americans — the way we see shapes from abroad, feelings that we think we recognize, and how we instantly attach them to a template of our making. And because the larger, general shapes of Russian culture look so American on the surface, there’s a mutual attraction.
Both cultures share emotiveness, a sometimes rabid patriotism, a distrust of strangers, affections for both authority and conformity that battle with opposing affections for independence and eccentricity. Americans and Russians also share a brand of arrogance that overcompensates for an awkwardness lurking within. It’s not just us. You can always tell when an Aeroflot flight has just arrived from Moscow by the emergence of swaggering, bejeweled Russians dressed in cowboy hats and leather jackets, struttin’ out of LAX’s Tom Bradley Terminal and dragging their suitcases into the American wilderness.
The problem is that these superficial similarities blind us to the traits that make us opposites in just as many ways. This is where things go awry on stages both political and theatrical. Americans generally abide by written contracts whereas Russian contracts are mostly unenforceable. (The theme of debt collection is driven through Russian literature like a spike.) Americans treat their own history like a used napkin — most U.S. college students don’t even know who Hubert Humphrey was — yet ask a Russian whom they’re voting for in their presidential election, and they’ll surely drag Ivan the Terrible into the discussion. Perhaps this willful amnesia is why Americans are at core so optimistic, whereas Russians, who remember everything, are not. Regardless of occupation or social status, a Russian will blithely wait for disaster to strike, which explains why Russians find a higher metaphysical purpose in drinking than working. This is not, for Russians, a tragic moral dilemma, as it is in a play by Tennessee Williams or a typical American production of Chekhov. It’s not a dilemma at all, just a fact, sort of amusing but not enough to make you laugh out loud, unless you’re under the influence. American drinking comes with Puritan/Catholic/ Jewish guilt, which is entirely beyond any native Russian’s comprehension. And so on.
Anton Chekhov was a very private man, his regard of fiction’s purpose being not to bare the author’s soul but to capture the winds of experience through observation, and to weave allegory and poetry and atmosphere from it. This is the opposite of, say, Tennessee Williams, whose light of wisdom shines directly on himself, his pain and his sexual predilections. Williams loved Chekhov and his plays are often described as Chekhovian. Not true. Chekhov wrote from the premise that his personal life is none of our business, whereas Williams wrote from the premise that literature is a form of confession. That latter premise has shaped our theater, film and television culture for more than half a century, culminating in “reality” TV. Which goes a long way in helping to explain why some of our finest stage talents keep bowdlerizing Chekhov’s great plays by turning them into moody confessionals, as though they were written by Tennessee Williams, with white wicker furniture, parasols and men in cream-colored suits.
THE ANTAEUS COMPANY is a smart group that knows Chekhov well. Its 1994 production of The Wood Demon(a precursor to Uncle Vanya) was staged at the Taper in a translation by Nicholas Saunders and Frank Dwyer. In their breezy translations of four Chekhov one-acts, under the umbrella title Chekhov X 4, presented in North Hollywood, the duo and the company illustrate the entire range of Russian-American understandings and misunderstandings.
Swan Song concerns a veteran actor (Lawrence Pressman) wandering around an empty provincial theater in the middle of the night. Svyetlovidov (the Russian word svyetmeans “light”) decides to pack it in for his career. Before doing so, however, he performs excerpts from his “best” works to an entrapped stagehand (Arye Gross). It’s a tender joke about delusions of immortality, but Pressman’s grandiloquent interpretation so rattles around between the satirical and the lugubrious, the production takes on the tone of Williams’ autobiographical The Two Character Play(about two actor-siblings trapped in a theater), which is no joke at all. It’s as though director Andy Robinson can’t locate Chekhov’s delicate intersection of parody and pathos, so he tosses out his Russian map and replaces it with an American one, where he may be on the wrong continent but at least he can read the atlas.