The long and short of Anton Chekhov on stage at festival
July 18, 2012 4:00 AM
David Whalen, in the title role of "Ivanov," rehearses with Nike Doukas, who plays his sick wife, Anna Petrovna.
By Sharon Eberson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Anton Chekhov is Andrew Paul's favorite playwright, and he's going to show you why the best way he knows how -- a Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre Chekhov Celebration.
The multi-program festival, running Thursday through Aug. 26, begins with the oft-produced "Three Sisters," a leadoff for the lesser-known early work, "Ivanov," in a new translation by Tom Stoppard that's getting its U.S. premiere.
"After Chekhov," two relevant works by Brian Friel, and "Funny Chekhov," which comprises short vaudevilles and one-act plays, complete the stage offerings.
The Chekhov Celebration schedule
• "Three Sisters" (translation by Paul Schmidt): July 19-Aug. 26, The Henry Heymann Theatre. Directed by Harriet Power. "Three Sisters" poignantly conveys the lives, struggles, loves and secret desires of sisters Masha, Olga and Irina and their somewhat ineffectual brother, Andrei. Set in a mythological provincial town in late-19th-century Russia, we see their lives unfold.
• "Ivanov" (U.S. premiere of translation by Tom Stoppard): Aug. 2-25, The Charity Randall Theatre. Directed by Andrew S. Paul. A sort of comic Hamlet, Ivanov is overcome with inertia and self-disgust. His wife is dying, and he feels nothing. He is drowning in debt and despair, and he does nothing. Is it him? Is it Russia? Ivanov was the 27-year-old Chekhov's shot at dispatching the "superfluous man" of Russian literature, and in surrounding him with a brilliantly drawn set of provincial types he created some of the finest comedy he had ever written.
• "After Chekhov": Pittsburgh premieres of "The Yalta Game" and "Afterplay" by Brian Friel. Aug. 10-26, The Henry Heymann Theatre. Directed by Alan Stanford. "The Yalta Game" follows a theme in Chekhov's short story "The Lady With the Lapdog": Two strangers meet on holiday and almost manage to convince one another that disappointments are "merely the postponement of the complete happiness to come ... ." "Afterplay": In 1920s Moscow, at a small rundown cafe, Uncle Vanya's niece Sonya, now in her 40s, is the only customer ... until the arrival of the "Three Sisters' " put-upon brother, Andrei Prozorov.
• "Funny Chekhov": Short plays and vaudevilles by Chekhov. Aug. 17-25, The Charity Randall Theatre.
The Henry Heymann and Charity Randall theaters are at the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. Single tickets are $25-$48; picttheatre.org or ProArts Tickets at 412-394-3353. Porch dinner and Chekhov show package, $60, and festival packs at 412-561-6000, ext. 207.
The celebration follows similar time-crunching playwright festivals by PICT: Harold Pinter last year, after the Synge Cycle and Samuel Beckett.
"We've done three of these, and all have been successful for us," said Mr. Paul, PICT's artistic director. "Not only in terms of attendance and sponsorship, but also, artistically, as a signature for the company. What I love about it both as a practitioner and for the audience is it gives you an opportunity to have a much deeper and broader experience with a single playwright."
He said the experience is also exhilarating for the actors who have made PICT a frequent theater home. Everyone appears in multiple plays with three directors at work, which requires a mastery of schedule juggling.
Staging Chekhov productions, with his relatively large casts of characters, makes this perhaps the toughest task yet -- "A little bit crazy," as Mr. Paul puts it. He tries for an hour of rehearsal for every minute of stage time required by the work, which in turn requires precision mathematics, all to be negotiated and re-negotiated as directors play tug-of-war for actors' time. Four plays were going at once during the first three weeks of rehearsal, and that was before the short programs were thrown into the mix.
It's a wild, sometimes frustrating, ride but worth the effort.
"Chekhov is my favorite playwright for a number of reasons, but the main one is, he's the only playwright who I think has been effectively able to render in the theater the density of the novel," said Mr. Paul, who will direct "Ivanov." "When you see one of the major Chekhov plays, you feel like you've read a 600-page novel in a 21/2-hour play. I think that is an extraordinary achievement. The depth of characterization, the way he uses ensembles, it's remarkable. But the other thing I love, which I think is one of the neglected things about Chekhov, is his view of humanity, essentially that life is a comedy. I feel that somehow he has gotten a bad rap as being sort of languorous and boring and a bunch of people kvetching about their existence. He's subtitled most of [the plays] 'A Comedy.' 'The Seagull: A Comedy.' Even though there's dark subjects in these plays, he feels our existence on this Earth, we have to laugh and find the humor in them."
The translation from Russian to English can be a key to finding those moments and bringing them to life for American audiences. For "Three Sisters," PICT chose a translation by American Paul Schmidt, a poet and an actor in addition to his longer-form work. "Ivanov" is adapted by Mr. Stoppard, winner of an Academy Award as co-writer of "Shakespeare in Love" and four Tonys.
"The Schmidt is very terse, it's very underwritten, and a lot of people feel he's come the closest to capturing the essence of 'Three Sisters' because it's terse. It's often overwritten," Mr. Paul said. "With 'Ivanov,' what I love is that Chekhov was 27 when he wrote the play. So, it's very much Chekhov in a free-wheeling, manic, tragic-comic play. So, the play shares more with 'The Playboy of the Western World' than with the later plays. But you can see the seeds of what would become the later plays, and Stoppard has a kind of manic energy to his work, so he immediately ties into that energy, and that's what he explodes in the adaptation. And, of course, he has a great funny bone, so some of the jokes that may have been stale in a straight translation he's kind of spiffed up. What I love about that, if you love Stoppard, you're going to feel like you're seeing a Stoppard play. But if you love Chekhov, you're not going to feel robbed. ... When Stoppard did his version, a lot of people were jumping up and down saying, 'He's rediscovered this masterpiece.' Well I don't think that's what he did. But because people weren't familiar with it and had written the play off as a lesser effort, they were surprised how good it was when he did his adaptation."
Manic energy could be used to describe Mr. Paul at this point and the entire company as they prepare to push forward. Starting with the more familiar "Three Sisters" was a calculated choice. The tangled web of siblings' hopes and despair has had countless productions worldwide and several films, including an all-star American version (Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis played the sisters) in 1966 and one in 1970 with a British cast including Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright. Audiences' lack of familiarity with "Ivanov," about a government official who is married to an ill woman and thinking of himself in most matters, means a mostly blank slate.
The expectations, though, come from PICT's previous celebrations and actors who have been seen frequently there. Mr. Paul can recall Martin Giles, for example, portraying seven roles during the Beckett festival. "Three Sisters" features Nike Doukas as Olga, Allison McLemore as Masha, Vera Varlamov as Irina, Christian Conn as Andrei and, as Vershinin, David Whalen, who also stars in the title role of "Ivanov."
"A lot of the actors have done these other festivals with me so they know what to expect, and a lot of these guys are amazing in their ability to learn three or four parts within a week or two once and perform them all in repertory. This is how theater is done in Eastern Europe. I worked in Poland, and that's how they do it. Actors will have seven parts in their rep, and they can pull them out on two days' notice. 'Oh, we're doing "Hamlet" this week, and we haven't done it in six weeks.' And they do one brush-up rehearsal, and then they re doing it full on."