A Written Life and Islands of Chekhov

Kicked off the evening with “A Written Life,” a collection of Chekhov’s correspondence set to music. In addition to my programme, I received a sheet reprinting the letters that had served as a basis for the production and, wow. I’ve heard people talk about the playwright’s vigorous and tireless intellect — and while I’ve never really been able to appreciate it in his writing, it’s extremely apparent in his writing *about* writing. He’s a man who examined every aspect of what he did carefully and thoroughly, and his thoughts about that process are fascinating.

As for the production itself — mm. I’ve written lyrics for a number of plays in the past, and the musicians who scored them have always been irritated with me — my fondness for abrupt verbal shifts aren’t easy to translate into music. Sitting through this, I began to develop some sympathy for them. See, the text is good, and the musician is good, and the singer is quite good — but as I sit through the awkward, post-tonal gymnastics that his prose is put through to approximate melody, I find myself wondering, what’s the point?

I mean, this wasn’t difficult to sit through. At no point was I squirming, waiting for it to be over (although I suspect that others might). The combination of sounds I was hearing were pleasant enough that I didn’t mind having a drink and listening, although I wasn’t able to wrestle much meaning from the text through the musical gauntlet it was running.

There’s love here, and skill, too, but it just doesn’t come together into something revelatory. The music doesn’t serve to illuminate the text in any meaningful way, however enjoyable both might be in their own right. Still, if this production served no other function than to get me to sit down and actually read some of Chekhov’s correspondence, it accomplished something worthwhile.

This piece was followed by the first to really blow me away. “Islands of Chekhov” was presented by Skewed Visions, a company that produced one of the best shows I’ve seen, well, ever — “Days and Nights,” an expressionistic collection of dance and film that’s still fucking with my head two years later.

See, Skewed Visions is a company that specializes in site-specific performance, finding unusual spaces and building shows around them. So what were they going to do in an actual theatre? Something unusual, of course, and totally frustrating to audience expectations.

The whole show consists of sitting in the dark, listening to a kind of radio drama, occasionally supported by text projected on the screen that serves as the show’s sole prop. It opens with the director, fumbling through a series of notes, proceeds to a disturbingly detailed re-enactment of Anton Chekhov’s final moments, and then lapses into a series of recurring fragments, narrating the events of the 1905 Russian Revolution and passages from Chekhov’s plays.

Worth considering is how this piece succeeds for me, while other equally experimental pieces (i.e. “tres bitches”) did not. What it comes back to, for me, is a sense of unity — in “tres bitches”, I had the impression I was watching a collection of clever pieces that never interacted in any meaningful way. In this one, the pieces interacted with each other in a way that resonated with me.

Quantifying the difference here is hard, but the fragments in “Islands of Chekhov” don’t seem to assembled in way that appears random to me — there’s a logic to its construction, even if that logic is nothing more than “It felt right at the time.” If that’s the case, then the electric impulses in my brain seem to be in a kind of eerie synchronicity with whoever wrote this, in a way that they weren’t with whoever wrote “tres bitches.”

I’m sure that’s not very useful, as a coherent piece of criticism. But this is the first piece I’ve seen that generated both a strong emotional and intellectual response in me, and that’s not something I can ignore.

The Art of Living

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One Response to “A Written Life and Islands of Chekhov”

  1. Charles Says:

    Well almost an entire year later I find this while looking for something entirely different. I am the guy who made Islands of Chekhov, and thank you for coming and I am very glad you liked the piece. And I think you’re brilliant.

    If you’re still interested (this later in the day), in my head as I was assembling these were a couple ideas: tying Chekhov’s death from tuberculosis to the beginnings of the Russian revolution (because the coincide so closely in time and so interestingly in history — and seem to reflect a particular tide of current events), and the difficulties of translation (with its correlated problems of representation of death, violence, reality, etc.).


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