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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Chekhov Machine
By David Avery
This is the conceit behind the Los Angeles premiere of Matéi Visniec's The Chekhov Machine. The famous playwright and short story writer Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov (Bjørn Johnson) is dying slowly of tuberculosis. At this feverish threshold between life and death he is visited by characters from his plays -- specifically characters from Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. It mimics a Chekhov play in its tone and structure, with a large ensemble that acts on and speaks about life, death, good, evil, despair, joy, and all things in between. The plot is simple and largely irrelevant -- a means to assemble characters and have them interact.
The cast does an outstanding job of presenting these creations. This is truly an ensemble piece, with each actor getting equal time to portray his or her role. While the play is ostensibly about Chekhov, he is really more of a foil for his characters. He becomes their healer, confessor, judge, and jury. He is their God in a sense, and they continually ask him throughout the play "Why?" Why am I this way, why is this happening, why can't things be different? Chekhov doesn't really answer these questions directly, appearing distant to the pain of his characters. In a telling moment, while treating the wounded Treplev (Dylan Maddalena), a young man perpetually attempting to commit suicide, he says "One should only set out to write when one is as cold as ice." Irina (Kristin Mochnick), Treplev's mother, says "Let Anton Pavlovitch do his work, he has everything necessary to clean your wound." And yet Chekhov appears helpless to change these people or get them to accept their fates, perhaps reflecting his impotency to heal himself.
The many standout moments include the visitation of murderously angry Anna Petrovna (Michelle Haner), a character killed by consumption, who comes to teach Chekhov "how to die." and berates him with "How could you do this to me?" There's also the Passerby (Ed Kiniry-Ostro) who wanders into many of the scenes, continually lost and moving to the next location. Three doctors -- Lvov (Spencer Jones), Chebutkin (Peter Vance), and Astrov (Aaron Lyons) -- have a memorable discussion as they contemplate Chekhov's corpse and the literary merits of his work, with each doctor representing a different attitude (and play) towards theater and its role in society. Also notable is a gambling scene in which Ranyevskaya (Melanie Chapman) loses over and over again, while lamenting that she should be lucky at roulette since she is "so unlucky in matters of the heart."
The characters all seem trapped in an endless cycle of circumstances and unable to become fully realized as people. The blood Chekhov coughs up is a metaphor for the life he gives the people in his plays-- yet it is a crippled and diseased life.
Florinel Fatulescu's direction combines multiple people, places, events, and rapidly changing situations on one stage. The play starts with all of the fictional characters huddled together in blue light, watching a dosing Chekhov, asking "when will the play begin," -- allluding to a Dickensonian visitation of spirits. Throughout the performance lighting sections off the large, circular stage and suggests different scenes, places, and times with minimal props. Jeff G. Rack's set manages to feel open yet compartmentalized. Through it all, Chekhov's bed and room remain visible to remind the audience that while we are traveling to various scenes and , we are in fact really still in the bedroom of a dying man. One of the more ghastly effects in the play is Chekhov's bedroom, with stained walls being suggested by three hanging curtains. Later, those same "walls" take on the appearance of the soiled handkerchiefs used to catch coughed-up blood.
This theaterhas one of the best sound systems I've heard in a long time, complete with 3D sound which is used to good effect, starting with ominous churning machinery, and incorporating birds, crickets, and other-worldly cries that originate from all places in the house. Ironically, the real Chekhov is said to have derided theatrical realisms (such as on stage sounds of croaking frogs) as "superfluous."
This is the second collaboration between playwright Matéi Visniec and director Fatulescu, the first being the well received How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients. While labeled a comedy, it is filled with the grim, absurdist humor unique to Russia. As Commander Solyony (Joseph Husler) says, "Do not confuse the Human mind with the Russian mind."
If the evening suffers from anything, it would be the enormity of the material. The playwright notes in the program that he "had a desire to write a play which stands on its own, a play which can move even the audience which is not well acquainted with the plays of Chekhov." That may be a bit optimistic. Those unacquainted with the Chekhov plays noted above risk missing about half of what is going on (The program does include character "cheat-sheet"). The attitudes and relationships of the characters, and how they react to each other and their creator is central to this production and serve to define Chekhov both as a man and as an artist.
The Chekhov Machine is a challenging and dense work, but one that will prove rewarding for all Chekhov enthusiasts. .
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