Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Doctor Was In ...

I decided I’m tired of writing thoughtful blog posts. I’m just not that guy.

That said, some thoughts on Chekhov.

We went to Berkeley Rep tonight to see Mikhail Baryshnikov in “Man in a Case.” It’s a multi-disciplinary piece based on two Chekhov short stories.

Now, with Baryshnikov, one might expect that something like that would feature a lot of dance, or at least, a lot of movement. And if you thought that, you’d be wrong. I actually think there was more laying on the floor than “movement.” (Seriously, he  moves some, but there’s no “dance.”)

I found the show itself kind of disappointing. It was never less than interesting, especially in its use of video, titles, and projections, but it was far more clinical than I would have liked. In my Facebook critique (that answered the question about whether I hated it – I really need to work on my image …), I said the following: “Well, I didn't hate it; didn't even dislike it. Thought it was a little too much of everything to be truly coherent. There was a lot of ‘Chekhov’ in it; meaning inexpressible melancholia, but (in spite of the program notes indicating they get Chekhov’s intentions) they really didn’t seem to convey them, substituting showy theatrical techniques [which were well done and interesting] for the real human connection and empathy I personally find in Chekhov. It was more clinical and removed than I’d have liked, but not uninteresting. It felt it was more about itself than anything else.” By “too much of everything,” I mean it had video, projections, sound effects, supertitles, stylized movement, mime, what seemed like improvisation, and Brechtian alienation effects. But it seemed like a lot of them were there because someone had thought “wouldn’t it be cool it we did (x)?,” rather than being there because they’re advancing or deepening the storytelling. (I’ll admit there were a couple of things I want to swipe for my upcoming production of “The Farnsworth Invention,” but I’ll use them both judiciously and only if they help advance the story in context, rather than just being interesting effects.)

What I almost posted then – and cut myself short because I hate texting on my phone at all, let alone on BART – was that I wondered if the approach they took was some kind of a reflection of Chekhov’s medical training; that is to say, taking a cold and clinical look at the problem in order to diagnose and treat it.

The problem with that approach – interesting though it may be (and let me repeat it was never uninteresting) – is that it cuts out the humanity and compassion that Chekhov exhibited in his life and writing. While I’m sure there were people he just couldn’t stand, every anecdote or report or biography I’ve ever read about him made him seem like a cross between Mr. Rogers and Huell Howser*, open to and full of curiosity about others, and offering kindness, compassion (that word again), and medical expertise to them, without respect to class or station.

Below is my favorite photo of him. He’s there with his wife, Olga Knipper, and I’ve always had the impression that immediately after the shutter snapped, he burst into gales of laughter.

Back to “Man in a Case.” Like I said, it’s not a bad show, by any means. Given the people involved, it would have to work hard to be bad. It just never takes off the way I wanted it to.

Back in grad school, I directed some of the plays in “Orchards.” “Orchards” is a collection of seven plays adapted by some major American writers from Chekhov’s stories.

Now let me preface this by saying I find most of Chekhov’s stories unrelentingly depressing. They’re human and brilliantly observed and written, but (since they’re almost all portraits of people who are frustrated in life and won’t take action to make corrections) dismal as hell. If someone is in a terrible situation, they may see a bit of temporary relief, but rest assured, there won’t be a happy ending. (The same is true of the plays, too, but Chekhov called them [with one exception] comedies, and I find them mostly successful in being funny in the way the characters are portrayed – and there are actually one or two characters who get what they want.)

But the plays in “Orchards” are mostly really good (and even the bad ones are interesting). “The Man in the Case” (the difference in titles is due to the lack of articles in Russian – and don’t even get me started on the difficulties in translating Nina’s “Я чайка” [“Ya … chaika / I … sea gull”] in “The Sea Gull;” that’s a topic for another time) adapted by Wendy Wasserstein (a writer whom I normally do not like) opens the show. She tells the same story as Chekhov and the company in Berkeley, but gives it an appropriately happy ending. That ending may not jibe with Chekhov’s original, but it fits the material quite well. (I wish I could remember the names of my actors in Oregon; they were both very good in the parts.)

And that’s where I think the company tonight went wrong. The story concerns a teacher of Greek, one Byelikov; a man who is so locked into his fears and habits that he cannot and will not open himself up enough to woo the woman he could potentially love and marry. He dies alone (because it’s a Chekhov story) and unfulfilled. The play tonight stuck with the story, but, unlike Chekhov, didn’t identify with Byelikov; it took a distanced and clinical look at him, which made the play dramatically inert. I’m not saying that we must identify – or even sympathize – with characters in a play, but in this case, do have done so would have gotten us closer to Chekhov’s intentions. Instead of just telling us “He’s a man who’s shut himself off from feeling,” it could have illustrated it more effectively. (Now that I think about it, it was probably the most elaborate example of reader’s theatre I’ve ever seen.) Wasserstein gives her adaptation a happy ending, which is most assuredly not in line with the original story, but is more satisfying by giving the audience a pleasant resolution and showing how proactivity can lead to good results (making Chekhov’s point indirectly).

There was a lot for me to carry away from “Man in a Case,” but unfortunately, they were more intellectual than emotional. If we’d gone to see Brecht or even Beckett, that probably would have been a good thing. (A former director of mine frequently referred to an alleged quote from Brecht about making an audience go home “with more on their minds than their hats.”) But Russians are so emotional and so demonstrative, and Chekhov’s purposes are to motivate his readers and audience to change their lives and take action, and that strikes me as calling for a more visceral (and, ironically, given the subject matter) approach than what was presented tonight,

It was good to knock “see Baryshnikov perform” off my bucket list, though … (Remind me to tell you about the time I met Katharine Hepburn some time.)

(*Howser was a Tennessean who was a longtime features reporter for KCET in Los Angeles. He had an enviably childlike quality for being astonished by the most mundane things. A friend of mine and I have a joke about him seeing an elevator: “You mean it goes up and down?!” He died last year, far too young, and a host of video tributes to him went up on the web. If you have never seen his exposure to an avocado-eatin’ dog, click here.)

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