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Happy Birthday, Chekhov!

Dancing with Chekhov, in Anton's Uncles
PHOTO BY JIM MOODY

After the opening night of Theatre Movement Bazaar's Anton's Uncles, they threw a birthday party for Anton Chekhov, who would have been 150. In the Russian playwright's Uncle Vanya, from which this production at 24th Street Theater is distilled, a country doctor with a passion for women, not unlike Chekhov himself, bemoans the death of a patient who expired in surgery, under his care.

"I sat down and closed my eyes — like this," Astrov the doctor explains to an old nanny — "and thought: Will our descendants one or two hundred years from now, for whom we're clearing the way, remember to give us a kind word? No, Nanny, they'll forget us."

Hardly. Well more than a century after Uncle Vanya premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899 (after out-of-town tryouts in 1898), champagne was flowing in Los Angeles to honor the man and his enduring legacy. Enduring, but relevant? Or is the Chekhovian "atmosphere" — a blend of vaudeville muted by existential malaise, all wrapped in a light sheet of unrequited loves, aphorisms and quasi-comic ruminations on the pointlessness of life — a kind of genteel distraction from the brutality of our culture and the vulgarity with which we express ourselves in it?

When asked to explain Doctor Astrov during rehearsals for its Moscow Art Theatre premiere, Chekhov replied cryptically, "He wears a silk tie."

Great. Thanks.

One could infer from that crack a kind of essence: a doctor forced to ride horseback across muddy roads to patients stricken with ailments, from emphysema and malaria. Amidst all that filth and disease, the man still wears a silk tie. You can almost see it spotted with grime from the road. This would reflect his beautiful, absurd faith in decorum and gentility.

And what has that to do with us, and our culture in which we debate in public by screaming and hurling invective, if not worse? Where even our romantic songs proffer odes to bee-yatches and whores.

In Chekhov's world, sometimes they make sarcastic jokes, but when they get really upset, they retire to an anteroom and shoot themselves, or somebody else. And everybody gasps in horror, or they nod knowingly. Their actions are like ours, but their style of interracting is certainly not like our style, which is far less respectful.

Chekhov's characters are eager to explain themselves, but we're far too evolved to explain. Explaining implies a confidence in the power of reason. We can't even agree on the facts. On when and how we were created. On whether our climate is really changing for the worse. We're not big on explaining, or on decorum or listening politely. We prefer to disparage and cut people off midsentence, like they do on talk radio.

There's so much in Chekhov's plays that now resembles fantasy. The politeness, for example. Does he, like Shakespeare, still have the influence to show us who we are? Not much decorum in King Lear or Macbeth, which somehow get right to the rancid heart of the matter. Chekhov would have a hard time on Broadway, even with, say, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts and Kathy Griffin as his Three Sisters. He's a minority taste.

Yet from that minority, from that land of antique decorum, you get a monologue from Astrov, whose hobby is to plant trees and help preserve Russia's great forests. Remember, this is a voice from 1898, a voice from the wilderness, even then, a self-proclaimed crank and eccentric:

"Oh, I don't object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. Why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down to pick up their fuel from the ground. Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wild life is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the Earth becomes poorer and uglier every day . ... When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride and I — [sees the WORKMAN, who is bringing him a glass of vodka on a tray] however — [he drinks] I must be off. Probably it's all nonsense, anyway. Goodbye."

The man with the silk tie is staring into the abyss of what his descendants — that would be us — will do to our planet. Decorum or none, there's no arguing with such unexpurgated prophecy. Uncle Vanya is the first play on record to grapple with ecology.

 

Director-choreographer Tina Kronis bypasses the problems of decorum and style in Richard Alger's distillation of Uncle Vanya, which takes a quartet of men from the play and displays and splays them with snippets of Vanya's more memorable scenes, plus Alger's own supplements, and Kronis' synchronized movement patterns.

Eddie Bledsoe's set consists of a bare hardwood floor on which pieces of Victorian-era furniture are judiciously placed and replaced by the actors. Behind the floor stands a backdrop suggesting a cloudy sky. Near the top, far above the actors' heads, stretches a shelf packed with a long row of vodka bottles, all tilted slightly to the right, in perfect harmony. This is a visual wink, a suggestion of the whimsy with which Kronis, Alger and Chekhov treat the end of the world. Because all of Chekhov's plays are, ultimately, comedies about our mortality.

The quartet consists of Vanya (Mark Skeens), an administrator on the estate of the aging professor Serebriakov (Derrick Oshana). There's also a destitute landowner named Telegin, nicknamed "Waffles" (Ernesto Cayabyab) because of his pockmarked face, and of course the good doctor Astrov (Jacxon Danyels).

Add to the quartet a Stage Manager (Kevin Chambers) attired in black and plugged into a headset, who helps move furniture, and reminds self-absorbed characters such as Astrov that everybody's waiting for his exit.

It's a youthful ensemble in a play largely about aging. This might create a disconnect were Kronis' staging not so much about pristinely executed movement. With ballroom elegance, they swirl and dance, often with one another, between snippets of dialogue such as, "What will they think of us in a hundred years?"

Kronis and Alger's sound track accompanies all this with themes ranging from a Henry Mancini motif every time the play's offstage female muse, Yelena, wanders by, to earthy, gutteral sounds of a Ukrainian folk band, sounds that resemble Gogol Bordello.

A samovar descends from a pulley and lands perfectly on a desk that's been placed there moments before the teapot's arrival from the stratosphere. Two characters build a delicate house of cards, which a third destroys, for no reason. And that's how Chekhov's theme of pointless destruction is visualized. A house of cards, temples of delusion: Somebody was too lazy or greedy to worry about the consequences of a decimated forest or an oil spill upon that house of cards, which was supposed to shelter us from storms. The final acts of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard are about departures from such houses of cards after reality sets in.

Anton's Uncles is a beautiful and exuberant riff, weighing in at less than 70 minutes. I wish some of its profundities were allowed to linger, even for a split second more. Chekhov's characters are ditherers, leading to the trap of passivity in so many productions. Kronis takes it the other way. Anton's uncles have an appointment with oblivion, and they're not going to be late.

At a private Victorian home in Angeleno Heights, Oasis Theater Company presents a site-specific production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. It opens on a patio behind the house, with an interlude for Act 3 inside the house, where the audience is in invited to nibble snacks, or eat borscht or drink vodka, while outsider German Charlotta (Karen Foster) performs a magic act. Rachel Weir's costumes are sort of period: Ancient Firs (James Greene) dons a tuxedo, other characters show up in blue jeans. Characters drink tea from china cups next to plastic water bottles. One scene referring to the decadence of the 1860s (which would certainly apply to the 1960s) has been switched out to a reference to the space race. I don't know why.

The actors, including Nicole Farmer as estate owner Madame Ranevskaya; Mark Jeffrey Miller as her brother, Leonid; and Jerry Clark as son of a serf Yermolai; have the kind of naturalistic authenticity, much in the style of Louis Malle's film Vanya on 42nd Street, but in addition to a unifying concept, director James Carey has yet to find, or isolate, the play's turning points. One moment reveals the promise of what this production can be: In an arranged marriage scenario, Yermolai meets with Ranevskaya's adopted daughter, Varya (Zoey Sidwell), to propose. Instead, they talk about the weather. After Yermolai bolts, Sidwell's Varya tries to prevent her heart from shattering all over the patio, and with such power, you feel the Earth shifting in its orbit. Nice performance also by Eden Malyn as the maid, Dunyasha.

But this is very much a work in progress as Carey, like most people in the theater, are still trying to fathom how Chekhov best speaks to us, 150 years on.

 

Anton's Uncles, by Richard Alger, directed and choreographed by Tina Kronis distilled from ANTON CHEKHOV's play, Uncle Vanya, presented by Theatre Movement Bazaar at the 24th Street Theater, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 13. (213) 745-6516

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, presented by Oasis Theatre Company at a private residence, 1417 Ridge Way, Angeleno Heights; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 6 p.m.; through June 20. (800) 838-3006.

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