On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco and A Water Bird Talk

This first show requires a number of caveats (in addition to my initial ambivalence about Chekhov in general). First of all, this isn’t my first exposure to this company: I’ve already exchanged some heated words about their first show I saw, The Cat Came Back, which I, uh, failed to connect with.

Secondly, I have some hostility towards the teachings of Michael Chekhov, as well, whose work this company has built itself upon. He’s one of Stanislavsky’s pupils, and one of Anton Chekhov’s nephews, and he shares their fondness for a form of naturalism that strikes me as phony. Secondly, I’ve seen several shows produced by those who adhere to his school of thought, and I’ve found them universally tedious; thirdly, I’ve found those who adhere to his school of thought to be irritatingly dogmatic, hailing him as some kind of theatrical messiah.

So, all of this initial prejudices aside — how did I react to this show? And my response can perhaps be best summed up as, “Meh.”

It’s an adaptation of a comic monologue by Chekhov, so its success hinges on the strengths of both its solo performer and on the text. The strength of the performer, for that matter, hinges largely on his relationship to the audience, and he faithfully follows the technique of every acting textbook I’ve ever read — he makes eye contact with the audience, reacts appropriately to audience response, responds to whatever response he’s given — and yet, *my* response to the performance was that it felt largely mechanical — I was never able to connect with him.

While I never found anything he said or did actively funny, at the same time his performance never engendered any kind of hostility — in fact, his steady comic patter caused me to feel warmly towards him.

Which brings me to the text, and that same feeling I experience on the conclusion of so many Chekhov performances, which is, “What’s the point?” It’s a character portrait, and not much more: and I’m one of those who responds more intensely to *ideas* than to *people*, which I’m fully prepared to acknowledge as a potential character flaw.

No, wait. I’m going to backpedal on that statement. What interests me is the *interaction* between ideas and people. Which may be why my hero from this period of American theatre isn’t Chekhov at all, but one of his rough contemporaries, Bertolt Brecht. Ideas without people are an empty intellectual exercise; whereas people without ideas are, well, this show. I saw a depiction of a sad old man, which may certainly be a satisfying theatrical experience for others; but for me, nope.

The second show was another exercise in adapting Chekhov’s prose to music. It was superbly well-done, the performer demonstrating several moments of brilliant comic timing; and I can recall at least four separate moments in which I was actively moved by the combination of the performer’s voice and the music that was being played under his half-spoken, sprechgesang dialogue.

That said, throughout most of the performance I found myself struggling with many of the same issues I wrestled with during A Written Life, which can be summed up as: what’s to be gained by the exercise? In fact, between the accompaniment, the offstage murmuring, and the steady stream of pictures revealed by the performers, I felt something like audience for the Saturday Night Live sketch in which a news report is delivered for those with short attention spans: that, in spite of a reverence for the text, the artists feel the need to be constantly dangling all kinds of aesthetic information in front of me to hold my attention. (I’ve actually felt this way about, well, most of the shows I’ve seen as part of this festival. Which leads me to suspect that my frustration with Chekhov is not unique to me.)

In fact, I would go so far as to say that this particular operatic interpretation actually works *against* the text: the whole dynamic of the piece revolves around a stuffy science lecture, and the deviations made from it. If those deviations are set in a context that’s already so incredibly theatrical (i.e. musical theatre), then they lose their impact, regardless of the remarkable skill of everyone involved.

Strange that this is a feeling I continually walk away with from this festival: a remarkable collection of artists, adhering to a concept that seems at almost diametric opposition to its text. The end result, I think, is audience frustration, at least for me, not any kind of illumination of the text that’s being played against. Shame, that, especially since the technical aspects of both productions were so notably well-executed.


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