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.)
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.
This is a common, constant impediment to the realization through stage realism of Chekhov's essence, his juxtaposition of light and dark, the humor of petty melodrama by characters reluctant to face down a world that's slowly crashing in around them. The one exception, where bone-rattling poetry emerges through hyperrealism, is in Louis Malle's film Vanya on 42nd Street.
The larger question is whether a company should succumb to our culture's attention-deficit disorder, or defy it. There's a certain nobility in defiance, in remaining truer to The Author's Voice than to the environment in which it might be heard. I'm not convinced that such defiance is doing Chekhov any favors. A girl next to me, maybe 8 or 10 years old, sat squirming throughout Traister's Seagull.
I doubt she'd have squirmed through The Treatment, largely because it met the criteria that Treplev was asking for: It spoke through impressions and symbols, and it met the requirements of holding attention in the 21st century.
Chekhov's "Ward 6" is the journey of a doctor, who befriends one of the patients in his hospital's mental ward. Early in the story is a description of the patient, named Gromov (Mark Skeens), and his fears of being arrested for no reason, through bureaucratic ineptitude and the institutional callousness of the police and judges. His worst fears become manifest. He explains the injustice to Doctor Ragin (Mark Doerr), who admits that who is in and out of a mental ward, or a prison, has less to do with justice than with boldface luck, or the lack of it — given how criminals and mental patients run the world.
Richard Alger's play transmutes the story into lean, taut dialogue, which coalesces with director Tina Kronis' sassy, whimsical, chorus-line choreography and rigidly formal stage movements throughout. Perhaps when the artifice of dance, and Ellen McCartney's era-conjuring costumes, are so transparent, and so beautifully executed (the company includes Jake Eberle, Nich Kauffman, Matt Shea and Jacob Sidney), the worry of believing that these people are "real" lifts, and they simply become real, through the artifice. I found it terribly moving.
THE TREATMENT | By Richard Alger, directed by Tina Kronis, based on the short story "Ward 6," by Anton Chekhov | Presented by Theatre Movement Bazaar and Theatre @ Boston Court | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through March 25 | Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.com
THE SEAGULL | By Anton Chekhov | Presented by Antaeus Company at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through April 15 | (818) 506-1983 | antaeus.org
EL NOGALAR | By Tanya Saracho | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. | Closed