Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Chekhov on Ross Street

"Modern playwrights begin their plays with angels, scoundrels, and clowns exclusively.  Well, go seek these elements in all Russia!  Yes, you may find them, but not in such extreme types as the playwrights need.  Unwillingly, you begin forging them out of the mind and the imagination, you perspire, and give the matter up.  I wanted to be original: I did not portray a single villain, not a single angel (though I could not refrain when it came to the clown), did not accuse anyone, or exculpate.  Whether all this is well done, I do not know."

Anton Chekhov 
commenting on his early play Ivanov

In 2012 I wrote about watching Chekhov plays on DVD and video, lamenting that North Coast theatres hadn't done a Chekhov in decades.  This year we came closer with Christopher Durang's delightful comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, done so well at Redwood Curtain.

Recently I've gone back to the DVD collection of Chekhov plays I mentioned.  I watched the 1981 National Theatre version of The Cherry Orchard, the Chekhov play most often produced these days, directed by Richard Eyre, with Judi Dench.  I watched the 1970 BBC production of The Three Sisters. And though I didn't look at The Seagull again, another viewing of the 1991 BBC version of Uncle Vanya confirmed my feeling that this is my favorite Chekhov play.  (I also took the very rare opportunity to see The Wood Demon, Chekhov's earlier play which contains much of Uncle Vanya verbatim, although there are significant differences between the plays.  The 1974 BBC production preserved in this collection is probably one of the few ever attempted.)

The character of the doctor (Astrov in Uncle Vanya) is present in both plays, and in both of these productions, seven years apart, he is played by Ian Holm.  My impression of Ian Holm was formed from the supporting roles he played in various Hollywood films--everything from Greystone: The Legend of Tarzan to Time Bandits to The Day After Tomorrow.  Many know him as Bilbo Baggins in various Tokien films, including the most recent Hobbit movies.  He is competent and sometimes memorable in the movies, producing a sense of confidence and ease when he appears.

 But his ease is deceptive--there are depths to his wonderful tour de force as Astrov. David Warner is an excellent and very relatable Vanya, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is fascinating in the very tricky role of the professor's young wife who everybody else is in love with.  But Ian Holm is a revelation, and it makes me want to find his King Lear.

Seeing this production again led to two firm conclusions: First, this 1991 version of Uncle Vanya is the best I've seen, and the best I ever hope to see.  The 1994 American version captured in Louis Malle's last film, Vanya on Forty-Second Street, is almost as good, but it is almost too contemporary and American.

Uncle Vanya is the only major Chekhov play I have never seen on the stage.  My second conclusion is that, with this version on DVD, I don't need to see it on stage.  A corollary of that conclusion is that no North Coast theatre appears capable of doing it well enough.  I suspect not many theatres are.  So I take back my lament that North Coast theatres don't do Chekhov.


Suzan-Lori Parks has an ambitious new play opening at New York's Public Theatre to high praise by the New York Times.  Her play Venus was produced at HSU in 2012.

Dan Kois at Slate on the pleasure of reading plays, specifically Annie Baker's The Flick.

Stephen Booth is a Shakespeare scholar I didn't know about until this article.  He's written specifically on Macbeth, the next Shakespeare on North Coast Rep's schedule for January.

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