Critic’s Notebook: Anton Chekhov for the modern world
NEW YORK — Anton Chekhov is always with us in the theater. But this summer his work has been especially prevalent, serving as an inspirational model for such contemporary playwrights as Tracy Letts, Andrew Upton and Annie Baker.
Having recently returned from a stifling hot busman’s holiday in New York where I saw two productions of “Uncle Vanya,” the Baker adaptation at Soho Rep and the Upton adaptation courtesy of the Sydney Theatre Company at the Lincoln Center Festival starring Cate Blanchett, I can’t help pondering the meaning of this Chekhovian preponderance.
These tickets have been some of the most sought after in these thermostat-popping dog days (I’m still seeking a way to get to Chicago to see what Letts has done with the “Three Sisters”), but a question immediately presents itself: Why would these playwrights tackle the challenge of rendering these familiar classics into English when there are plenty of translations already available that fit comfortably in the mouths of 21st century actors?
Upton, who’s the co-artistic director title of Sydney Theatre Company with his wife, Blanchett, has experience in translating the Russians. But Letts, author of the highly decorated “August: Osage County,” and Baker, an Obie-winner for “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens,” are strictly playwriting originals. Wouldn’t they — to say nothing of the future of our theater — be better served by putting their energy into their own writing?
Nonsense. Every dramatist, novice or veteran, should periodically reconnect with Chekhov, whether that means taking a shot at adapting one of his works or just marveling closely at the compositional mastery.
But these productions weren’t intended as playwriting tuneups. In each case, it was a joint endeavor between a dramatist and a director of compatible sensibilities, backed by an acting ensemble uniquely capable of executing the duo’s interpretive approach to a playwright whose tragicomic poise remains as enticing as it is elusive.
Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro, who collected Tonys for their fruitful collaboration in “August: Osage County,” are working once again with the nonpareil Steppenwolf Theatre Company of which they are leading members. Upton invited world-class Hungarian auteur Tamás Ascher, after seeing his production of “Ivanov” a few years ago, to guide a cast of top-drawer Australian actors. And Baker joined forces with her directorial cohort and fellow wunderkind Sam Gold in a highly intimate staging that gathered some of downtown New York’s most idiosyncratic talents.
The two “Vanya” offerings could hardly be more different. Gold has set his production at Soho Rep, which has become a force under the brave artistic leadership of Sarah Benson, inside a wooden house that the audience inhabits as well. His direction isn’t timid of the play’s natural theatricality but it’s contained within a cinéma vérité style.
The actors, who modernize the deportment of their characters without altering their Chekhovian essence, are allowed to take as much time as they emotionally need in a scene. The play’s rhythm, as a result, gets draggy at times, especially in the final act or whenever Merritt Wever’s poignant but sluggish Sonya grapples with heartbreak. But there’s an improvisational freshness to the performances, three of which (Reed Birney’s Vanya, Maria Dizzia’s Yelena and Peter Friedman’s Professor) connect Chekhov’s century to our own, much as Bart DeLorenzo managed in his scintillating “Ivanov” at the Odyssey Theatre earlier this season.
This bridging of eras seems to have been the impetus behind the Baker-Gold production, which has become the sleeper of this globally warmed New York summer. Baker’s version of the play doesn’t radically update the work yet she gives the language an American suppleness that allows the cast members to appear as though they are spontaneously thinking the lines up on the spot. Like her “Circle Mirror Transformation,” produced at South Coast Repertory in 2011, this “Vanya” tries to capture the intense drama that is always lurking under the surface of everyday reality.
Baker and Gold’s perfectly matched aesthetic offers a contemporary means of fulfilling Chekhov’s oft-quote dictum about his art: “Let the things that happen on the stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up.”
Ascher’s staging of Upton’s beautifully spoken “Vanya,” which I caught an early preview of at New York City Center, provided remarkable evidence that farce can be as emotionally weighty as tragedy. Chekhov subtitled his play “Scenes From Country Life,” but the direction here was bouncily anti-Stanislavskian. The actors were denied opportunities to overindulge their characters’ feelings. There weren’t any ponderous pauses. The touch was light and the pacing quick. Dramatic moments were choreographed in this universe of unrequited love, in which pratfalls reigned supreme and slapstick posed untold dangers for characters wrestling with what lies unexpressed within them.
Blanchett, whose beauty was utilized to striking effect in the production, glided around the stage like a 1950s movie star who stumbled off Hollywood Boulevard and can’t regain her bearings. This heightened characterization (she enters, à la Grace Kelly, in sunglasses and a head scarf) threw into relief the destabilizing power of Yelena’s beauty.
The whole household has become topsy-turvy now that this mermaid has joined it with her gout-ridden professor husband (John Bell), who expects everyone to dance attendance on his every cranky whim. Richard Roxburgh’s Vanya and Hugo Weaving’s Astrov are particularly infatuated with her, and their big vodka-infused scene together, a rowdy late-night outing filled with the camaraderie of two smitten men who know they haven’t a shot at romantic bliss, offered the fullest realization of Ascher’s marriage of giddy hilarity and ultimate heartbreak.
Neither “Vanya” could be called definitive, but it would be futile to hold out for the perfect Chekhov. (The Sydney Theater Company production has left New York, but the Soho Rep production has been extended through Aug. 26.) Surely one of the compelling draws of staging Chekhov’s plays is the opportunity of getting nearer to the truth of his “laughter through tears” vision.
But I’m reminded of something that Blanchett told me when I interviewed her in June about “Vanya” and her ongoing work at Sydney Theatre Company that perhaps better explains this recent high-profile fascination with Chekhov.
She talked about that moment in “The Cherry Orchard” when the characters are sitting outdoors, lost in thought as they tend to be in his plays, and the sound of a breaking string in the air causes consternation about its origin and meaning.
This mysterious disruption, which Blanchett called “the quintessential Chekhovian moment,” serves as a harbinger of seismic change for the characters. For Firs, the ancient servant attached to this debt-burdened estate, the foreboding sound recalls the time when the serfs were given their freedom. Yes, even progress can be shattering, as old orders get swept away before new ones have had time to coalesce.
Chekhov would be dead before the Russian Revolution of 1917, which the country had been moving toward for decades, but his turn-of-the-century plays register the tremors of this epochal earthquake. They also seem to uncannily pick up our own tectonic rumblings. When Astrov talks of the decimation of the Russian forests and the despoiling of the environment, it might seem as though Baker and Upton are taking liberties, but indeed these concerns run rife through the original.
No one seeing “Uncle Vanya” today can precisely pinpoint the source of our own historical apprehension, but given the barrage of economic crises, the political upheavals that include the still-unfolding consequences of the “Arab Spring” and the havoc being wrought by climate change, it’s easy to understand the urgency with which Chekhov’s plays continue to speak to us
Of course the characters in “Uncle Vanya,” bewildered by ageless existential questions, have their hands full just trying to endure their disappointments. But in the shifting times in which they’re caught, they can’t help anxiously wondering what posterity will make of them or whether they’ll be remembered at all.
These concerns have, if anything, grown only graver in the last 100 years — so much so that we might need Chekhov to mediate them for us. Thank heavens the gentle Russian doctor achieved the theatrical immortality needed to attend to our dire 21st century health.
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