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|A CurtainUp Review
Chekhov Getting His Due: Flocks of Seagulls and Much More
By Les Gutman
Gull at Chekhov Now Festival at The Connelly Theater
Story of an Unknown Man from Gorilla Rep
We need new forms.
New forms are needed, and if we can't have them,
then we had better have nothing at all.
--- A. Chekhov, from The Seagull
As we rapidly approach the centenary of Chekhov's death, it seems reasonable to seek to understand why it is that his work is still celebrated at virtually every turn. Why is it that this "old form" resonates so?
I am prompted to inquire because, this month alone, the second annual Chekhov Now festival (three weeks during which 13 plays of or inspired by Chekhov will be presented -- full details available at the website linked in the box below) takes place at the East Village's Connelly Theater, while Gorilla Rep mounts its own production of Story of an Unknown Man, a play based on Chekhov's first novel, An Anonymous Story. This month we also have the end of the run of Rome's Teatro Vascello's surreal Italian Seagull at La Mama and a Cherry Orchard in London starring Vanessa Redgrave (CurtainUp's review just posted and linked below). Shortly, another Orchard will grow at the Pearl on Saint Mark's Place while earlier this year, Nada had its own Chekhov festival, focusing on his early comedic pieces known collectively as "Vaudevilles." I'm sure if I looked I could expand this litany even more.
There are plenty of ways to explain this phenomenon. I'll offer just one. In Chekhov, we find an essential, universal comprehension of the human character that not only remains germane over time but that renders its context fairly beside the point. Strip away all of the scenery, as Ellen Beckerman does in Gull, and you are left with one of the most emotionally jarring Seagull's you'll likely ever see. Overlay Chekhov's story of class conflict in 19th Century St. Petersburg with contemporary Russian parallels, setting it within another play set in a small village in current-day Chechnya, as Anthony Pennino does in Unknown Man, and it won't be long before you realize that new forms linger within old ones.
In his program notes for Chekhov Now, its artistic director, Adam Melnick, suggests Americans, fearing there is only one "proper" way to do Chekhov, have been reluctant to eschew Stanislavskian naturalism and have fun. I'm not sure I buy that notion (the Wooster Group's Brace Up! and Jeff Cohen's Seagull set in the Hamptons come quickly to mind), but I applaud efforts to blow out any residual Chekhovian cobwebs and, even more so, encourage new playwrights to build new work on Chekhov's shoulders. The sort of creative dialogue Chekhov Now creates is particularly heartening.
A funny thing happened on Ellen Beckerman's way to the Connelly Theater. Her elaborately physical style couldn't find a home in her take on Chekhov's Seagull, so she had the good judgment to let her distinctive imprint recede. What we are left with is a vivid distillation of Chekhov's words, accentuated rather than overpowered by the sort of often-exaggerated movement that is her signature. Most often, she has her actors face the audience rather than each other, forcing us (not at all reluctantly) to zero in on Chekhov's moving language. (Worry not: the trucated title Gull signifies some artful editing but not a wholesale rewriting of the original.) The product is abetted enormously by a cast that makes the text soar. I could write at length about my impressions, but this should be enough to get you there.
We are in the mortified company of three local residents when a traveling troupe of hungry actors steal in for refuge. They agree to perform a play (this play) for a share of the meager comestibles. The trio of Chechnyans become an interactive part of the audience and from somewhere (not exactly clear), Chekhov himself (Clayton B. Hodges) shows up to narrate and participate.
It turns out to be quite a compelling story involving spies, assassins and (more or less) romance. This is Chekhov in a far more urban in setting than we are used to; his story has been particularly nicely adapted by Mr. Pennino. The exterior play can't really compete with the adapted one for substance, but it makes its point in general and certainly doesn't interfere. Fine performances, especially by John Walsh, Tracy Appleton and Michael Colby Jones in the central roles, make this a treat. Even in cramped quarters, Sanderson's staging sometimes borders on the magical, and Terry Leong's costumes are extremely good.
There's plenty more Chekhov ready to challenge us this month. These two are a fine way to whet the appetite.
London review of The Cherry Orchard
For links to other Chekhov reviews and more, see CurtainUp's Chekhov Page