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Years ago, I was sitting in a pocket-sized theatre in Prague, watching a performance of Uncle Vanya. Staged by a hot young Czech director, it was set in contemporary West Texas, complete with a bluegrass band. And I remember feeling more than a little foolish that I’d come halfway around the world to see a fresh new interpretation of a 19th-century Russian classic only to find that it had already been transplanted into my own backyard.
As a translator and director of Chekhov’s plays, as well as his biographer, I’m an unapologetic purist. For me, his plays are delicate, impressionistic works of art: beautiful, evocative, illuminating, and, above all, unpretentious. At the same time, I live in the real theater world and am aware that Chekhov (second only to Shakespeare) is the most aggressively adapted of all classical dramatists, and, as a result, one of the most frequently exploited artistically. Like Shakespeare, his works are in the public domain and therefore “fair game” and defenseless, so there’s no author’s agent to swoop down on willful directors and adapters who like to mess with the masters.
I’ve seen The Seagull set in the Hamptons, The Cherry Orchard staged on a giant billiard table, Platonov performed in a swimming pool, and The Three Sisters upgraded to “The Four Sisters” (the director took pity on Natasha, the sister-in-law), to mention only a few. One company even staged The Three Sisters using a bunch of video screens and kept calling on the translator to explain the moment-to-moment action.
Some have gone farther than “tampering” with the settings and used Chekhov’s plays as a launching pad for their own artistic space odysseys, like Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, which combined The Three Sisters and the theories of neurobiologist Paul D. MacLean. There’s even a production called (are you ready?) Stupid Fucking Bird, an adaptation of The Seagull that’s been making the rounds of the regional theaters.
Adapting or distorting?
Maybe I’m missing something, but I tend to shy away from these exploitations of Chekhov’s original works. In almost all the above-mentioned cases, while the productions may have been popular, Chekhov’s original intentions have been obscured and/or compromised. Why tarnish works of purity, simplicity, and beauty, I wonder? Can’t these directors and adapters leave Chekhov alone and write their own plays?
Still, I try to keep an open mind and occasionally it pays off. Vanya on 42nd Street, Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s clever 1994 film, stripped Chekhov’s classic down to a simple reading in the then-abandoned New Amsterdam Theater. In those decaying surroundings, Chekhov’s play seemed suspended in time and space, just as he intended. La Petite Lilli, the daring French-language film adaptation of The Seagull, took liberties with Chekhov’s plot. But its luminous Nina and wounded Treplev stayed true to Chekhov’s characters, and, as a result, the film resonated with aching Chekhovian irony. Peter Stein’s German-language production of The Cherry Orchard (I saw it performed in Moscow), although Wagnerian in scale, nevertheless delivered the impact of the play’s cataclysmic historical context.
Through the wormhole
So it was with a bit of trepidation — as well as determination — that I ventured down to the Painted Bride to see New Paradise Laboratories’ production of The Adults. In it, director Whit MacLaughlin appears to be using the same approach as the London-based Complicité company in developing dramatic work, namely, beginning with a written text and/or other materials as sources of inspiration. In the case of The Adults (as he explains in his program notes), MacLaughlin picked Treplev’s play-within-the-play from Chekhov’s Seagull and “dropped it through a wormhole into an alternative universe,” using the imagistic paintings of Eric Fischl as his visual vocabulary.
Sounds like an experiment, doesn’t it? It felt like one, for most of the production. Maybe I shouldn’t have read those program notes before watching the performance, but I spent most of it trying to figure out a) what was going on and b) what relevance it had to Chekhov’s play.
First, there was the set, suggesting a seaside resort but dominated, inexplicably, by a giant stuffed bear standing stage right. Then there was the strange guy running around wearing a broken pair of eyeglasses and beard (representing Chekhov in pince-nez, I imagine). Then there was an assorted cadre of characters, some of whom may or may not represent Chekhov’s originals, like the fellow wearing swim trunks who spent the whole play typing in a closet (Treplev, most likely), or another walking around with a notebook in hand (suggesting Trigorin), or an ingénue in the bathing suit (Nina, presumably). There was a lot of unrelated talk (e.g., “Hi! I’m on vacation,” “I am moving through the world,” “I make my own hummus,” etc.). As for dramatic action, there was a lot of dropping of trousers, drinking tequila, barking, and bickering, while “Peaceful Easy Feeling” played somewhere on the radio.
Wait for it . . .
After 70 minutes of searching in vain for a narrative, I was about to give up on MacLaughlin’s bizarre “alternative universe.” And then came the pay-off. Suddenly, the young ingénue appears in a beautiful white dress and recites the mysterious, magical lines from Treplev’s play (in The Seagull): “Men, lions, eagles and partridges, horned stags,” etc. Et voila! The purity of the moment in the midst of all that other artistic pretentiousness was precisely what Chekhov was evoking in his own play.
So yes, Chekhov lovers, if you don’t mind waiting almost an hour and a half, you’re in for an epiphany. If you’re brave enough to fall through MacLaughlin’s looking glass, you’ll come out the other end with a renewed appreciation for Chekhov’s vision of “new forms” in art and in the theater.
Meanwhile, what would Dr. Chekhov have thought about seeing a large, ten-foot stuffed bear sharing the stage with his Seagull? How would he have taken it? Good-naturedly, I imagine. Having found himself in similar circumstances during his artistic lifetime, Chekhov once remarked: “I have been translated into all languages, with the exception of foreign ones.”
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