I’ve never seen a production of Chekhov’s major plays that I’ve enjoyed. Granted, I haven’t seen that many. Robert Moulton’s production of “The Seagull”, the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” in '69, Interact Theater’s “Cherry Orchard”, to name several. All very earnest, respectable, but I wasn’t moved to either laughter or tears. At Parson’s Nose we had a lot of fun presenting two of his farces, “The Boor” and “The Marriage Proposal”, works that are usually performed by amateur companies, considered lesser works, a perception we disproved. And that experience encouraged me to keep digging. I can’t believe that the same guy who had such a lively sense of humor in those works could produce such heavy handed soap operas as most companies present. I think the Moscow Art Theater and Stanislavski have done Anton a disservice. To me, it’s as if we played Chris Durang as serious drama.
The more I read of Chekhov’s short stories, such as “A Play” and “Anna on the Neck” and “The Teacher of Literature”, the more convinced I become that he had a wicked sense of humor underlying much of his work, and that he reveled in the incongruity of the human comedy. His plays are tragicomedies. His characters are comic because they choose their fates as surely as if they picked up a gun and shot a seagull for no reason other than to unsuccessfully release the pain of unrequited love. The key, I think, is tragicomedy. What we laugh at as character's obsessions in the first act turns into the source of pain when we see its effect in the fourth.
It’s difficult to get today’s actors to approach Chekhov in a new way. Our actors are often trained in "real" as opposed to "true". Previous productions, including the Moscow film series, have ingrained a sense of somber “Realism” to the playing, as if they’re doing a combination of “Lower Depths” and “One Life to Live”. And I don’t think the “Realism” helps. Where’s Meyerhold when you need him?
I don’t know if we’ll have enough time to find a fully realized acting style that works in time for Saturday night’s reading. It will probably take weeks of rehearsal and experimentation. But if there ever was a company that was up to the challenge of investigating this master dramatist in a new way, Parson’s Nose is the one. Do come join us and explore this splendid work.
By Lance Davis