By Thomas Hoover
“(We) revere the past, hate the present, and fear the future.” Was that Anton Chekhov a century ago, or was it on cable-news politics last night? Or why are so many of us starting to sound like this dead Russian?
Well, visit Chekhov’s country-house world and you’ll encounter: income inequality, laid-off traditional workers dispossessed and despairing—a future that no longer beckons certainty. Could be that a lot of
our neighbors think we’re already there.
However, in case we still need it spelled out, we can thank modern theater. Ibsen once had a determined woman slam the door on her way out, and many swear it was a wake-up jolt heard ’round the Western world. In our case, in April alone, we’ve had our Chekhov mirror refreshed by (count them) three local Seagull homages: Riff, Spin, and Reality Check, one still playing.
Riff appeared at the Harry De Jur Playhouse of the Abrons Art Center on Grand Street, the revered 100-year home to an eclectic fare. Titled The Seagull and Other Birds, directed by Gavin Quinn and delivered by an Irish ensemble, Pan Pan Productions, it featured pop songs, line dancing, and low-rent ballet costumes. The core device: Offer a War Horse line from the play, then riff it. Example: Vain movie-star actress and berating miserable would-be playwright son, go off traditional script and zing, “In fact, you couldn’t even get a job writing for Days of Our Lives.” Maybe great art can still be served en brochette, but even when Chekhov merely lurks, he’s indelibly there.
The Spin version was decidedly more up-market, and up-town. It’s playing at Pearl Theater (originally on St. Mark’s Place, now on West 42nd Street), through May 8th, authored by Aaron Posner. The Good Grey Times sanitized the title to Stupid ____ Bird. (The bleeped word rhymes withan avian creature but alas not “seagull.”)
The Times also cautions that the play is set “in the here and now, only more so.” For example, you’d almost have to invoke Oh Calcutta to see so many unmentionables shed in once wistful Chekhovian scenes of romantic longing. (Well, Anton, you’re not in Czarist Mother Russia anymore.) If Chekhov imagined he was “letting it all hang out” through an unlatched window, Bird is a public esplanade.
Thus your Chekhov sampler has a G-rated Irish smoothie or an adult 42nd Street cocktail. But for those who prefer their genius neat, no mixer, there was also a third April production to admire. Reality Check focuses more on the man himself than his scripts, a refreshing angle. The venue was the historic private actor’s club, The Players on Gramercy Park South, and the staging a professional reading with some of New York’s masterful thespians.
Titled To Moscow, author Karen Sunde, director Robert Lawson, producer Stephen Ashworth, you experience Chekhov’s life and loves as he resists, then joins, Konstantin Stanislavsky to create the Moscow Art Theatre that enshrined both their reputations.
Sunde’s recounting begins at the humiliating opening flop of Seagull, written by a country doctor (himself adored by an impressive number of women). Then, as he and Stanislavsky proceed to revolutionize theatre, we also engage the celebrated Olga Knipper and their star-crossed marriage-in-theatre.
The play’s curtain descends on Chekhov’s untimely death by consumption, forever intertwined with the opening of The Cherry Orchard, and his farewell clash with Stanislavsky over whether the play was a comedy or, as Stanislavsky insisted, a tragedy. In Chekhovian style, To Moscow sends us home still wrangling the answer. Maybe our next election will help us decide who had it right.