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
The Russian master playwright, Anton Chekhov, who wrote short stories and plays around the turn of the last century, seems to have a particular appeal to theater people, who keep doing his plays and adaptations of them even though their rhythms and reflectiveness are at such a remove from the popular sensibilities of our era.
In the past month, there have been three local productions attempting to usher Chekhov's comedy of sadness into our lives. In a production that closed last week, the Fountain Theatre presented Tanya Saracho's El Nogalar, an adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, relocated to a border town between northern Mexico and west Texas. Saracho said she discovered Chekhov in college and instantly related to his female characters, saying she knew those women because they seemed so Mexican: the overdramatization of emotion, the femme-fatalism, the unrequited love. In her version, all of the men except for the entrepreneur Lophakin are excised from the play or relegated to offstage status.
Meanwhile in Pasadena, over at Theatre @ Boston Court, the company Theatre Movement Bazaar underscores the testosterone in The Treatment, a highly stylized, tautly choreographed adaptation of Chekhov's short story "Ward 6." Richard Alger wrote the text; his partner, Tina Kronis, has staged it with a company of six men. This comes on the heels of Alger-Kronis' Anton's Uncles, a rigorous adaptation of Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya, which, inverting Saracho's impulse, eliminated the female characters. (It was presented in L.A. in 2010 and will be restaged at South Coast Rep this June.)
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Then there's Antaeus Company in North Hollywood, which recently opened a double-cast, very traditional, gender-intact rendition of Chekhov's The Seagull. Of all Chekhov's plays, this is the one most conspicuously about theater people, for theater people.
So what is it, exactly, that thespians see in the Russian author that they insist pertains to 21st-century life? First, Chekhov started his literary career writing jokes. He loved vaudeville, and the absurdities it depicted. If there's anything that links all of his plays, it's the absurdity of unrequited love.
In one emblematic scene, early in The Seagull, local schoolteacher Medvenko (Patrick Wenk-Wolff) proclaims his love to the estate manager's depressive daughter, Masha (Avery Clyde). "What's the problem?" he asks, exasperated. "I love you!" She chirps back, sniffing that she simply doesn't love him, and goes on about her business. The comedy will escalate and turn darker when they do finally marry. All of Chekhov's plays are comedies of various kinds of settling, leading to metaphysical anguish. The ancient servant Firs, locked by accident inside the abandoned house, has the last lines in The Cherry Orchard: "I'll lie down a while. ... There's no strength left in you, nothing's left, nothing. ..."
Chekhov's genteel humanity may be an escapist fantasy in our era, where empathy is ever harder to come by. The bridge between the centuries and the continents, however, lies in the eternal verity that something tectonic is changing, and that we're staring into the end of things. Chekhov was staring into the face of the fledgling Russian Revolution. We're staring down the barrel of ecological catastrophe — which Chekhov also underscored in his play Uncle Vanya, with Dr. Astrov's speeches about the destruction of the Russian forests leading to pernicious climate change. And yet we persevere, day to day, amidst incremental incidents of such destruction. "Any idiot can make it through a crisis," Chekhov once wrote to his brother. "It's the day-to-day living that will kill you." And in that joke lies the essence of what we all face, and what theater people are so determined to embrace.
A neurotic young playwright, Treplev (Joe Delafield), goes on a rant near the start of The Seagull, about the need for new forms, and how antiquated is the professional theater of his actress-mother (Gigi Bermingham) — the faux realism, the tidy little morals. What's needed, he says, is a theater of impressions and symbols. With this revolutionary artistic case, he presents his own site-specific drama-lecture-monologue that's insufferable to most of his family and neighbors. Later in the play, when he has settled into a life as a published but not particularly successful author, he recalls that outburst and concedes that what's needed is not new forms but merely the impulse to write, and then let the forms follow as they will.
Comparing Antaeus' traditional Seagull to Theatre Movement Bazaar's more cutting-edge The Treatment, I find myself of both minds.
Watching Andrew J. Traister's period-true staging of The Seagull (in Paul Schmidt's translation), there are the oh-so-familiar, languid Chekhovian rhythms that fly in the face of our era's diminishing attention spans. There are deep cultural reasons for the shift from three-hour dramas in three or four acts from 100 years ago, to 90-minute dramas sans intermission that have taken over our contemporary stage. The assumption here is that gorgeous costumes (by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg) will divert us from the stasis — or, at least, the impression of stasis — that made Chekhov's plays so revolutionary. The company is excellent (with the likes of Clyde, Bermingham and Gregory Itzin), but the perception of actors working at being characters seldom lifts.