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 svyet means “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.
The essence of Russian vaudeville is summed up in a scene created by the late actor Alexander Lebedev in the early 1980s. It’s still replayed on Russian TV’s Culture Channel, and it’s hard to find a Russian who can finish describing it without bursting into laughter. It’s a mostly visual gag about a professional thief who awakens for breakfast so hung-over that he’s speechless and needs a shot of vodka to soothe his migraine. Problem is, even when he’s finally able to pour a glassful from the bottle, because of his severe shakes, he can’t get the shot glass to his lips before dumping the liquid onto the floor. His contemptuous wife refuses to assist, so he contrives an elaborate cranelike mechanism from a kitchen towel, which he uses as a sling/hoist connected between the shot glass in his right hand, and looped over his shoulder to his left hand. It’s a 10-minute skit that culminates in the moment of victory when the liquid hits his system, he regains his speech and he belittles his wife for having no class.
Director Sabin Epstein taps this same confluence of physical humor and cultural Zeitgeist in his staging of Chekhov’s The Proposal. An aging bachelor landowner named Lomov (Gross) arrives all puffed up at the home of his neighbor Chubukov (Martin Ferrero) to ask for his daughter’s (Emily Bergl) hand in marriage. Chubukov retires to leave the two lovebirds in peace, but their wooing instantly flares into a squabble over which family actually owns the meadow behind the fence. As his fury rises, Lomov struggles to contain his own failing health — heart palpitations and a loss of feeling in his legs and arms. He screams abuse then instantly clutches his chest and collapses on the divan — a graduate of the “Look What You Made Me Do” school of psychology. Gross’ is a magnificent cameo that conjures the spirit of Lebedev with deep roots in the goofy geometry of Russian folk humor, while Bergl spits fire perfectly in return.
By the time this brand of comedy got to the Catskills from the Ukraine, its Old World cultural and psychological essences were being flattened and propelled by comparatively deflective jokes and one-liners, prepping the genre for radio comedies, variety shows and sitcoms. Curiously, where American dramas are more confessional than Russian, American comedies tend to stake out a greater distance between a joke and the pain that underlies it.
The main joke in Chekhov’s The Anniversary comes from a complaint lodged by a babushka (Anne Gee Byrd) to a bank director (John Apicella) that he owes her husband money. Naturally, she wanders into the bank just as the board of directors waits outside to begin a party. The banker slowly realizes that the old woman’s “entitlement” has nothing to do with his bank, that she’s at the wrong office on the wrong side of town. Byrd’s indignant babushka is nicely textured, but director Michael Michetti lifts a style of farce from the wrong Borscht Belt — one-note hysterics and loud wisecracks that drown out Chekhov’s more subtly pained humor, and the cultural anthropology underlying it — a scorched-earth effect making it a Russian comedy bludgeoned by American intervention.
An overdue payment also forms the core of The Bear, probably Chekhov’s most popular one-act, about a boor (Harry Groener in top form), facing foreclosure, who bursts in on an aging widow (the childlike Dawn Didawick) to collect his debt. Her icy stubbornness only fuels his underlying affections. The connection between rage, lust and economics again shows how firmly rooted Chekhov’s comedies are in the local landscape, and though director Stephanie Shroyer’s nicely modulated production looks a bit like an American sitcom, there’s no harm to its core. Jeremy Lawrence’s goggle-eyed servant is also well-calibrated for gentle, comic effect.
OVER ON THE WESTSIDE, Lost Dog Productions presents Matt Yamashita’s affectionate parody of The Three Sisters called Sisters, Oregon, relocated to the 1890s Pacific Northwest for no discernible reason. It’s a bit tawdry and dribbling with anachronisms. Here, Vershinin blows into town as the new sheriff. Under Arthur Milliken’s direction, actors clump around in various performance styles. The humor also comes from the Catskills (via late-night cable TV) — running gags, sexual innuendoes and exposed buttocks. The Oregon setting somehow makes this permissible as the production careens between being completely artless and very funny. It sustains attention mostly from its freewheeling, juvenile charm. Purists will be furious, though I doubt Chekhov would give a hoot. This wink at the similarities between the two cultures comes as though direct from the studios of Saturday Night Live. Anything authentically Russian has been cleanly eviscerated, which really makes the play a parody of unwitting American arrogance.
CHEKHOV X 4 | By ANTON CHEKHOV | Presented by the ANTAEUS COMPANY at the NEW PLACE THEATER, 4900 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood | Through March 21 | (818) 506-5436
SISTERS, OREGON | By MATT YAMASHITA | LOST DOG PRODUCTIONS at the BLACK BOX THEATER, 12420 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through March 27 | (310) 489-0617