But in her just-closed staging of The Seagull for the Actors Co-op, Diane Venora may be the first director since Norwegian Stein Winge opened LATC with his lunatic The Three Sisters (1985) to treat a Chekhov play not so much as a text, but as a piece of music. The result was a warm breeze the freshest and most vibrant Chekhov seen here in a decade and a half.
Masha (Marianne Savell), dressed in funereal black, opens the play with the devastating line Im in mourning for my life. (And thats one of her more frivolous moments.) She yearns for neighbor and fledgling writer Konstantin (Bruce Ladd), who loves aspiring actress Nina (understudy Michelle Dunker) so much that he writes for her the leading role in his own artsy play, performed on an impromptu stage in the woods. The event is a disaster, attended and dismissed by Konstantins jealous, stingy stage-star mother, Irina (the excellent Kristina Lankford), and her beau, a very successful short-story writer, Trigorin (John Hugo), a slave to his craft who is also painfully aware of the shortcomings in both his character and talent. Meanwhile, a doctor (Edward Symington), fatigued by that profession, encourages Konstantin as best he can, and, like the doctors in all of Chekhovs plays, has the smartest lines. (Chekhov was a doctor, fatigued by that profession.) Oedipal stress among Konstantin, his mother and Trigorin goes largely unrelieved over the fleeting years, during which Konstantin keeps trying to shoot himself, the plays every romantic attraction goes unrequited, and every ambition is driven to its knees.
This is what the Russians call comedy, and not without reason. The principal characters have many fevered and eloquent speeches darts that, at least half the time, amusingly miss their targets. This provides some comedic compensation for the ache that occurs when, the other half of the time, the characters hit the bulls-eye. Similarly, and given a certain emotional remove, the ongoing battle between dreams and misfortunes turns the stage into something of a Punch and Judy show.
As in music, Chekhovs themes arent so much literary cautionary, say, or allegorical as they are lyrical, carrying motifs and resonances, symmetries and rhythms. The result is not moral but tonal, very much dependent on the vision, wit and capacities of the director.
Venoras staging made no attempt to update the material, although she treated the words less as belonging to what weve come to think of as a play by Chekhov, and more as a playful Haydn quartet. Her production opened with voices and noises from all corners of the theater, people babbling and as in the later, serious conversations talking over each other. Gary Lee Reeds set decorated the stage with a series of suspended, translucent linens, hung from wires so as to open or enclose the tiny stage. This not only provided a weightless aesthetic; it gave the playing area slightly larger than a walk-in closet and with almost no height to speak of an illusion of depth. Even an onstage piano didnt crowd things.
A large part of Scene 1 had characters hidden behind the drapery an approach to the play that, upending traditional tenets of stagecraft, is clearly more concerned with sounds than with meaning. This idea was further supported by Peter Stenshoels music and sound design, employing the echoes of a piano (sometimes recorded, sometimes played onstage), the tinkling of a music box (boomed far too aggressively over the sound system) or bird song to accompany large blocks of the production. In one scene, with all the characters gathered onstage simultaneously chattering day-to-day minutiae, they stopped for some unexplained reason to gaze out in the audiences direction during what must have been at least 15 seconds of tense silence broken, finally, by somebody commenting on the weather.
None of this would have been supportable if Paul Schmidts translation of the play didnt breathe so easily, or if Venoras cast werent topflight. Savells Masha had the comic audacity of Roseanne a broadness of style that strained against the text until her heartbreak surfaced and the reason for her clowning became apparent. Ladds handsome Konstantin somehow combined emotional thunder with infantile petulance, creating a kind of parody of Hamlet. And, for the plays duration, not an actor onstage appeared out of place.
We have concurrently performing musicals, also about show biz, that demonstrate how Stephen Sondheim has adapted Chekhovs theme of suffocated passion into musical theater, while employing many of the good doctors tonalities.
Follies (book by James Goldman) concerns a pair of aging couples at a 30-year-reunion party, as the New York City theater at which they all worked (the women in the chorus line, the men as stage-door johnnies) is being downsized into a parking lot. The characters see ghosts of their former selves and, while nibbling on the cake of nostalgia, face their failures and frustrations.
The rudimentary question posed by Tim Dangs sluggish if pretty staging for East West Players is why any theater particularly one thats paying Equity wages would put on a musical, particularly a Sondheim musical, with a cast that mostly cant sing. The play is largely about pointlessness, but there must be a more appealing way to drive it home.
West Coast Ensemble fares much better with 1981s Merrily We Roll Along (book by George Furth), Sondheims musical remake of George Kaufman and Moss Harts 1934 stage play of the same title, which follows backward in time a trio of friends (Anthony Paul Meindl, Richard Israel and Lisa Picotte) involved in the entertainment industry some successful, some not, all frustrated.
The musical is legendary for its stink-bomb New York premiere, which severed professional ties between Sondheim and Harold Prince. (It recovered somewhat in a 1985 La Jolla Playhouse revival.) All we get is fatuous attitudinizing about how ambition, success and money always lead to rack and ruin, wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. (The same could be said of The Seagull, which the critics similarly drubbed at its opening.)
The general complaint about Merrily has been that its characters with their situational ethics, hollow lives and career frustrations are not the kind of people one wants to follow backward in time, or forward, or in any other direction. Borrowing from Rich, the word fatuous could be easily applied to that argument, as the musicals point, like Chekhovs, is not to heap goo upon the characters but to expose their flaws, to view them against the larger shapes of destiny.
Jules Aarons staging is so snappy and textured, and his cast so fine, that the characters evident shortcomings become submerged, finally, by the scores intricate, operatic juxtapositions of melodies, rhythms and key signatures. As in Chekhov, the point is not an argument but a feeling. At plays end, we see the central trio on an apartment roof gazing up as Sputnik hurtles by. They believe theyre on the brink of something significant. By this time weve seen their future their weddings, betrayals and divorces, the flights and nosedives in their careers and the irony is as blistering as that of the title.
Aaron has never been known for his light touch. His production of Company, a couple of years back for this same troupe, tended to reduce poignancies to campy jokes. Here, however, he shows considerably more respect for the material, and the tone is just right: a tenderness and a sardonic crackling that keeps the maudlin at bay.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG By GEORGE FURTH (book) and STEPHEN SONDHEIM (music and lyrics) | At WEST COAST ENSEMBLE, 522 N. La Brea Ave. | Through July 8
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FOLLIES | By JAMES GOLDMAN (book) and STEPHEN SONDHEIM (music and lyrics) Presented by EAST WEST PLAYERS at the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo | Through June 25