Thursday, July 10, 2014

More Notes From Chekhovania

These are some additional notes on Durang and the Chekhovania play--but unlike the review, there be SPOILERS here arrrgh!

Speaking of which, Durang quotes a number of other works in this play, sometimes as "quotes," sometimes not.  One of the quotes ("fame, thou glittering bauble") someone attributes to Captain Hook in Peter Pan.  It's funny, especially because it's true--this is where the quote is from.  In the play Masha says "such an interesting thing for a pirate to say."  Gloria Montgomery goes a little further and tries it out pirate style: "Fame, thou glittering bauble, arrrgh!" A funny line which is not in my copy of the script.

Why a quote from Peter Pan?  Who knows, though it's likely that someone of playwright Christopher Durang's generation would know of Peter Pan through the Disney animated movie.  The Disney animated movie of Snow White (and what various generations know about it) becomes a droll plot point.

There's another quote that's given as a quote, though the author is never identified:
"True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment."  Masha thinks maybe she remembers it from some play she's done.  Maybe, but it was originally written by William Penn.  Penn was not only the founder of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but Bucks County--where this play takes place--is one of the three oldest counties in PA, named by Penn.

There are other quotes and partial quotes, especially within the prophetic rambles of Cassandra, housekeeper and psychic, whose namesake in Greek mythology is talked about.  Some of her lines quote the Greeks, but also "The Owl and the Pussycat" by non-Greek Edward Lear.

Chekhov Echoes

Some are obvious, such as Sonia crying “I am a wild turkey!” instead of “I am a seagull!”  Or the debate on whether 11 or 12 cherry trees constitutes a cherry orchard. Or the famous actress watching an experimental play by her son (in The Seagull) or in this play, her brother.  In this play Vanya at least mentions the repeated theme of Uncle Vanya: we must work!  However this Sonia has a more contemporary and probably practical point of view.

 There are many other echoes, some quite elegant. Durang’s Vanya is concerned about climate change, as is a different character in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya--Dr. Astrov who says at one point: "We have destroyed the forest, our rivers run dry, our wildlife is all but extinct, our climate ruined...but I pass by the woods I’ve saved from the ax. I hear the forest sighing...I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. Perhaps the climate itself is in our control.”

Vanya's Tirade

Nina persuades Vanya to present the play he's written to all the others. Most are attentive but Spike doesn't understand it and grows bored, texting and "multi-tasking."  This sets Vanya off on a tirade about what's been lost in a speedier world where experiences aren't shared in the same way.

But his specific examples are oddly off.  He talks of them--mostly from the 1950s--as his own childhood experiences, but the character is supposed to be 57 in 2012, and a lot of what he talks about came earlier.  The Disney version of Davy Crockett, for example, first aired in 1954.  Vanya wasn't even born until 1955.   These are memories of somebody a decade older.  And some sound wrong.  He says he watched Bishop Sheen on Sunday evenings before Ed Sullivan.  Bishop Sheen was certainly a TV phenomenon, but he was broadcast nationally on Tuesday evenings opposite Milton Berle. This show went off the air in 1957.  He came back with a syndicated version in the 60s-- individual stations picked the air time so it's possible that some stations aired it on Sundays then.

In fact, a lot of the culture clash in this play doesn't make specific sense unless the "present" indicated as the play's time is actually about ten years ago.  But maybe it's worth it just for Vanya's observation on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet": "In retrospect they seemed medicated."

The Tony Award

This play earned Durang the Tony for Best Play on Broadway in 2013, in what I dubbed the "Resurrection Tonys."  Career-wise (not that we care about such things), Durang hadn't been hot since the 80s--say around the time that Cyndi Lauper broke big in the pop charts with "Girls Just Want To Have Fun."  But in 2013 both Durang and Lauper got Tonys--as did the 88 year old Cicely Tyson, whose decade was the 70s.  It's a tribute to hanging in there, doing your work, staying visible, maintaining and expanding your friendly contacts, being open to being asked, and mostly, hanging in there.


This play profits from Durang's experiences since his early success.  He's been one of the most successful teachers of playwriting anywhere, nurturing new talent at the Julliard School.  So he's been in touch with younger people, particularly in the theatre.  Nina in this play may learn towards a cliched innocence--and at first there's a hint of All About Eve in her heroine-worship of Masha--but she winds up as an appealing and important character, even younger than Spike and also with ambition, but with a very different sensibility that is nourished by the best of the past.

When she talks about sensing a decision point in what kind of actor she will be, Nina also has some very droll lines that are (like a lot of Stoppard's in Shakespeare in Love, for example) inside the profession humor but very funny.

Style of the Play

In my review I assert that this is not one of Durang's parodies, and stands on its own.  Here's a different view on that by a critic who reviewed the pre-Broadway New York production.  He calls it a "vaudeville"--a series of sketches more or less--and suggests it is for "educated" audiences who will grasp all the Chekhov mixes and matches (he describes a bunch of them.)

Judging from original cast photos, I suspect it was in fact played more broadly in New York than it is being played in Eureka. ("If you hate exaggeration," playwright David Hare wrote, "New York is never going to be the city for you.")  I think that's probably true of most New York comedies, especially when the characters represent stereotypes or at least familiar types to New York audiences.  Conversely, North Coast productions quite often find the more universal aspects of these plays.  That's partly because the actors generally can't play (or are uncomfortable playing) stereotypes, including variations on ethnic types.  And audiences here are less familiar with the nuances of such approaches.  For example, a recognizably Jewish character may be very funny to a New York (and Jewish) audience, but here, even if it could be done well, maybe not so much.

(Another factor mandating a more fundamental approach here is the necessarily simpler set, lighting scheme, effects etc.  This is taken to an extreme at Redwood Curtain, at least since NCRT performed Les Miz on pretty much the same set as Oedipus.  The Durang play set is really generic. You'd think they could at least have the wicker chairs called for in the script.)

What's interesting about how the play is performed is what it says about the play itself: is it strong enough to entertain, or simply to hold together, when it isn't done so broadly?  The plays that succeed here are.  The ones that aren't become painfully obvious.

There's also the intimacy of Redwood Curtain, where very broad acting may not work so well--especially by those without the skill levels of the best international actors New York can access.  Still, to make it work as a kind of burlesque may requires another level than we have available here.  Durang wrote Masha for Signourney Weaver, who played the role in New York: an aging movie star who arguably short-circuited a stage career to make a series of blood-drenched movies, played by somebody with pretty much that resume.  The interplay of actress and character had to be part of the experience for the audience.

But here the actors played their parts as people North Coast audiences might well recognize from their lives rather than their media consumption.  Geo Alva's portrayal of Spike was stylized but only slightly.  His Spike might not be part of daily life here, but he probably is in certain parts of southern California.  The other rather sly bit of stylization was Raymond Waldo's portrayal of Vanya, but it was to emphasize the Chekhovian qualities, the Uncle Vanya crossed with Konstantin in The Seagull, whose play within that play he attempts to emulate.  That Vanya in this play is gay becomes a slight part of the plot, but like Durang himself, he doesn't draw attention to it, at least thematically.

Characterizations like this make it a different play perhaps, but the play is up to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very nice review. Just one thought regarding Vanya's age and the year the play is set. He states that he saw Goldfinger when he was thirteen which would mean he was born in 1951 since the movie premiered in '64. This sets the play in 2008, not 2012 since he is 57. So Vanya's remarks during his "tirade" therefore match chronologically to his recollections and fit his experiences appropriately. Memory is fickle but not in that scene.