Stop Staging Stuffy, Boring Productions of Chekhov. He’s Much More Fun Than That.

Notes on the stage.
July 27 2012 12:00 PM

Chekhov’s Banana Peel

Stop staging stuffy, boring productions of the Russian master’s work. He’s much more fun than that.

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To see how singular Blanchett’s performance is, compare it to another production of “Uncle Vanya,” at New York’s Soho rep, which received rave reviews and is still running. Sam Gold’s production aims for offhanded intimacy and a vague, abstract mood of quiet, contemporary angst. Maria Dizzia’s Yelena wears simple black tights, and slumps her way through the play, a performance marked by passivity. There is no joy here and only mild humor. Like the production itself, her Yelena is played in a minor key. Gold seems less interested in exploring subtext as he is layering onto the script a thick mood of gloom, matched by dark lighting that often hides more than illuminates.

When Merritt Weaver’s Sonya describes the philosophy of the doctor in one of the play’s first major speeches, she is sitting down and delivers her lines flatly. By contrast, McElhinney’s Sonya in the Australian production lights up dramatically, her hips swaying unselfconsciously. She makes you understand that this is a speech about Sonya’s love for the doctor, not just an introduction to his philosophy. Then she goes further, suggesting, through her harsh disagreements with Yelena, her resentment at having competition for his attentions. And after realizing how openly she’s gushed about the doctor, she shows supreme embarrassment. These turns are not some excessive flourish. These moments of passion and pathos are rooted in the play. If that speech is merely a dry explication, the romantic stakes and rivalries at its core of the play are not revealed. Though Annie Baker’s adaptation may be more faithful, it fails to capture the play’s spirit.

To understand the essence of Chekhov’s art, it’s important to look at its roots. He began his career writing advertisements, jokes, and sketches on deadline for magazines. He whipped up stories that included farces and a thriller about a femme fatale murdered under mysterious circumstances. And while this early period is often viewed as an immature phase he grew out of (including by him), he developed the instincts of a popular entertainer, and they stayed with him.

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The Seagull doesn’t just begin with a joke that Woody Allen would appreciate— “ ‘Why do you always wear black?’ ‘Because I’m in mourning for my life’ ”—the disastrous play within the play in Act One is also one of the great satires of theatrical pretentiousness. And besides sending up hollow intellectual airs, Uncle Vanya also uses time-honored dramatic conventions. There are two long drunk scenes (in which inhibitions fade), a farcical chase that ends with two gun shots, and the old trick of a man walking into a room and finding his friend embracing the woman he loves. None of this is to criticize the play, just to say that an Uncle Vanya with no trace of vulgarity betrays the work.

Chekhov is famously a pioneer of psychological realism, but that doesn’t mean he created the kind of morose slice of life portraits too many theatergoers have sadly come to associate with his work. Chekhov aimed to portray the world in all its messy complexity. When he turned his powers of observation on the human personality, what he saw was something bizarre and thrilling and not at all banal. The critic Harold Bloom put it well when he observed that Chekhov “shows us how strange ‘the realistic’ actually is.” His plays also show us how despair can be hilarious, levity devastating, and the stakes of an ordinary romantic rivalry preposterously high. It’s bizarre, yes, but so is life.

Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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