Swan Song, Uncle Sergei and A Boring Story

The show opened with TigerLion Works’ “Uncle Sergei,” and I’m genuinely sorry to conclude — particularly since I know one of the performers, and know her to be both very funny and very talented from class work that I’ve done with her — that this is something of a failed experiment. I’m already intensely ambivalent towards the use of the red nose on-stage, and I’m saying this as someone with a degree of clowning training; while the device may have served as a useful indicator for an audience a century ago, and while it may be a useful teaching tool now, I simply can’t see what function it serves on the contemporary stage other than as a kind of barrier.

The premise here is to take the text — yet another Chekhov parody — and have it interpreted by a trio of clowns. Whatever virtue may be found here is buried beneath technique that simply isn’t very funny — at least, I wasn’t able to derive much enjoyment from it, and the audience I was with tonight didn’t really seem to be sharing their trip, either. Most egregious of their choices is for each actor to be equipped with a wacky “silly” voice, which rapidly became grating.

I found the whole experience intensely depressing, honestly — here’s a trio of people who have devoted a significant portion of their lives to mastery of a discipline, and the end result of that is a production which buries a potentially interesting script beneath centuries’ worth of dogma. I wish I could find something more positive to say, but the whole exercise is built on a premise that seems so deeply misguided to me that I’m not sure what more to add.

So, most of my reviews for this festival have been complaining to various degrees about how each company seems to be almost embarrassed about Chekhov, hiding him behind all manner of theatrical devices, and how nobody seems to really be trying to play the material straight, and then, bing bing bing bing, Zealots and Mystics finally does a production that I really, really, really like.

The piece is an early vaudeville sketch by Chekhov called “Swan Song,” dubbed “tragicomic” on the website, although I didn’t find it particularly funny — but that’s not a bad thing! It’s simply staged and simply done in every respect — the only tech is a single ghost light in the middle of the stage, and the show consists of two thespians, wandering a theatre late at night, talking about art and life and death and whatnot — and I don’t know what possible resonance this could have for someone who hasn’t devoted their life to the theatre, but speaking as someone who has, man. This resonated up the wazoo. It’s nothing more than a really solid, old-school piece of theatre, two skilled actors dialoguing with each other on stage, without much in the way in technical trickery to back them up — and they don’t need it, either.

Would probably have more to say about that piece, except that they were grandly upstaged by the finale, “A Boring Story.” Which isn’t a dig, because the closer was *phenomenal*. Here, at last, is the Chekhov that I’ve been hearing about. The piece is largely a monologue (interspersed occasionally with dialogue from two other excellent actors) by an old man, armed with a kind of reflexive wit — not out of any desire to be any kind of rebel, but just because he’s too damn old, too damn exhausted, and too damn disillusioned to give a fuck about tip-toeing around his ideas anymore.

Make no mistake; the piece is aimless, meandering, shapeless, and *brilliant*. It’s peppered with quotable one-liners that are genuinely profound, scattered freely throughout an ocean of words, of amiable rambling that’s not at all unpleasant to listen to. Smart, too, forcing a degree of self-confrontation that’s even making me choose my words carefully *now*.

This is the fourteenth piece I’ve seen in the festival so far, and I’m telling you, if you see one, this is the one to see. I think that stapling the three together onto a shared bill was probably a mistake; the last piece is very long, and very thoughtful, and *complete*. Nevertheless, they’ve got one performance left, Saturday the 23rd at 7pm, and it’s worth worth worth catching.

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10 & 7 Freeloaders and A Dopey Fairytale & The Skit

[CAVEAT: I arrived about two minutes late, so I missed the very opening of the show.]

As the multiplicity of conjunctions in the above title may suggest, this show consists of a collection of shorter pieces, adapted from Chekhov’s short stories and put on by various groups of high school students.

The first one (“A Dopey Fairytale & The Skit”) uses one of the author’s stories as a frame. The bulk of the action is a play-within-a-play that seems to have little to do with his work, either stylistically or thematically. I found myself struggling with two aspects of this production: first, that the sprawling ensemble is so large, and the space so small, that the staging became chaotic and borderline incoherent; and second, that the action was played in a broad, cartoony style that I found grating, that style in which the characters are having a great time, and the actors are having a great time, and everyone involved is having a great time, and, well…I’m not, really.

In the frame story, the characters are played only slightly less broadly, in a way that I suspect undercuts Chekhov’s purpose: the characters are so buffoonish that they can function as nothing but the objects of ridicule, rather than seeing ourselves implicit in their actions and words. If the purpose of the story is satirical, it’s lost in the goofy fun the actors are having with their roles. Which is enjoyable in its own right, but I can’t help feeling disappointed at the sense that the story is getting lost in the process.

The next two represent much freer adaptations, using the stories mainly as loose inspiration, and they’re much more successful, essentially boiling down to a pair of comedy sketches.

“The Next Great American Play” features a coop of chickens trying to form a kind of revolution. Most of the fun to be had here emerges from watching a group of actors behaving like chickens, which is done with varying degrees of success; at least two of the performers are able to milk an engaging and funny performance from the premise, assembling an enjoyable collection of comic tics and mannerisms, while the others are, well, not quite able to achieve the same level of physical commitment.

The final one is by far the strongest, a kind of comic murder mystery taking place between a collection of household tools, and both the text and performers are able to work the premise to its fullest, extrapolating the various personality disorders these tools would be likely to have and building very funny physical performances from it.

There were two problems. First, that it was too long; and second, that a key performer in the piece was placed sitting on the front step of the stage. This meant that I wasn’t able to see him — I would catch glimpses of him occasionally, enough to figure out that he was doing something amusing, but not enough to figure out what that something was. I managed to see him clearly by the end, at which point it was revealed that he was, uh, the central joke of the piece. So it’s a shame that I missed that, both because it explained a lot of confusing aspects of the performance, and because it provided some of the most entertaining moments. So, hopefully they can find a better placement for him.

In all three pieces, the relationship to Chekhov was so tangential that I found myself wondering at their inclusion in the festival. But then, perhaps that’s part of what this festival is all about — right?

Chek It, Baby

Wow. Uh, this is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. And I’m saying that as someone who’s reviewed Wonderland.

So, there was at least one major belly-laugh for me during this show — an interpretation of “The Seagull” which consisted of an audience member spinning around in a circle and saying “I’m an actress, coochie coochie coo” as the solo performer shot himself in the head — but for a forty-five minute show, I’m afraid that one laugh represents a poor ratio.

The show opened with a sketch featuring Chekhov’s eponymous three sisters on the set of a talk show, a sketch built upon two jokes: first, the mashup of highbrow and lowbrow, which makes for a fine joke, if not a terribly sustainable one; and second, the rapid character-switching of a single performer, which is a crowd-pleasing performance technique that has rarely worked for me. (I say with some dread, as I’m currently developing a show that relies heavily on my own character-switching.)

This moves into a fundamentalist preacher delivering his interpretation of “The Cherry Orchard,” and, mmm, this is where the performance lost me entirely. Fundamentalism is a philosophy so grotesque that it’s an easy target for satire — too easy; it’s an opportunity for the audience to pat themselves on the back in a self-congratulatory manner without challenging them in any meaningful way, and I find that a style of comedy that’s very difficult for me to stomach. It’s little more than excuse for a room full of liberals to chuckle at the stupidity of Republicans with a few Chekhov references going on in the background, and I was wincing through most of it.

In all fairness, I’ll offer the caveat that the audience *was* chuckling liberally throughout (a pun! Hah! Aren’t I too precious for words), but for my own part, the greatest virtue of the performance was that it was mercifully short. The performer was indeed charismatic, but the strength of the performance rode almost solely upon his own charisma, and not upon the strength of the material. Speaking as a writer, this was rough going.

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.

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

One More Thought

It was a really weird double-bill tonight. I went in, half-expecting slavishly faithful homages — and it’s easily possible that I’m just projecting, but I feel like I sat through two shows that had as much hostility towards Chekhov as I do. Don’t get me wrong — I laughed and had a good time at various points during both — but after five hours of sarcasm, I found myself longing for something to hang onto, at least one genuine character or one genuine moment, and neither really provided me with that.

No real observation here, other than the fact that it’s a bit surprising in a festival devoted to a playwright famous for his warmth towards humanity. I’m curious what the rest of the shows have to say.

tres bitches –or– i wanna go to moscow

I actually caught a preview of this show a few nights ago, and opted not to mention it online — it’s extremely expressionistic, and didn’t excerpt well, I’m afraid. It feels somewhat churlish to be critical of a show that’s working so incredibly hard to entertain you.

Here, they tackle Chekhov’s weighty dialogue by taking a page from another defining philosopher of the theatre, Bertolt Brecht — complete with anachronistic costumes, pop songs and show tunes, stage directions projected on the wall behind the actors, and contextual footnotes read by a stage manager from the audience. The latter in particular gives it the kind of quality of a cartoony Cliff’s Notes at times, a sort of hyperactive Schoolhouse Rock. But I can’t escape the sense that ultimately, all the show is doing is slathering an astonishing amount of theatrical and visual inventiveness on top of a tedious soap opera.

I was feeling extremely warm and charitable towards the show at the half-hour mark. After an hour, I was more than ready for it to be done. And maybe I’ve been spoiled by bite-sized Fringe outings, but by the time it hit two hours, I was having to work to actively suppress hostility towards the proceedings.

There was a cadre of people sitting to my left who were having a great time, laughing loudly and ready to follow this crew wherever they were going. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to join them, and I have to say that this one is only for die-hard fans of the playwright and experimental theatre. They’ll find much to deconstruct, I’m sure; but I also feel compelled to give the warning that it’s going to be rough going for the rest of us.