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Chekhov in Yalta

Seanachai Theatre Company

at the Chopin Theatre

By Nick Green

Unlike Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow’s biographical Chekhov in Yalta doesn’t portray its historical characters in a rampantly ahistorical or anachronistic light. Nor does it descend to the level of the recent Edgar Allan Poe–Once Upon a Midnight at the Mercury Theater, piecing together a semblance of character from the poet’s writings alone–though Driver and Haddow obviously assign a great deal of importance to Anton Chekhov’s writings and their impact. Certainly an intimate knowledge of the details of Chekhov’s life heightens appreciation of their work, but it isn’t necessary. Standing on its own as a piece of theater, Chekhov in Yalta is the perfect marriage of history and dramatic art.

Set at Chekhov’s villa in Yalta at the turn of the century, Chekhov in Yalta reenacts four topsy-turvy days in the life of Russia’s preeminent dramatist. Having just completed The Three Sisters, Chekhov spends his days fishing and shooting the breeze with Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin and Maksim Gorky and his nights being bored to tears by Lev Tolstoy’s war stories. But when the entire entourage of the Moscow Art Theatre arrives at Chekhov’s estate looking to score a hit with the playwright’s latest masterpiece, all his well-laid plans for rest and relaxation are laid to waste.

Driver and Haddow’s 1981 script has all the standard components of a bawdy farce: ill-timed entrances and exits, mixed signals, furtive glances, libertines, ribald hanky-panky. What’s surprising is the play’s deep sense of history and reverence for its subjects. The members of the Moscow Art Theatre did actually descend upon Chekhov’s estate in 1900 in an attempt to secure the rights to The Three Sisters. Chekhov did have a torrid affair with Olga Knipper, one of the Moscow Art’s best-known actresses. And Chekhov’s extreme distaste for the methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, codirector of the Moscow Art Theatre, is well documented.

Of course Chekhov in Yalta does take some liberties. In actuality Chekhov wrote The Three Sisters expressly for Stanislavsky. And by all accounts the playwright was too gravely ill with consumption to have taken as many trips to Moscow as the play suggests. But in light of Driver and Haddow’s otherwise painstaking attention to detail, such minor distortions and adjustments can be overlooked. The play, which clocks in at almost three hours, manages to synthesize a remarkable amount of information, from the tiniest of facts and nuances to the most abstract of themes, like Chekhov’s love/hate affair with the theater.

To his dying day, Chekhov adamantly maintained that his full-length plays were comedies. Yet even in his lifetime, directors of Chekhov’s works devoted themselves to mining their dramatic and melancholic depths. Although most theatergoers would be hard-pressed to find belly laughs in The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov thought of it as a farce. What’s unique about Chekhov in Yalta is that the playwrights don’t find this notion in the least absurd. Covering a very short, very tumultuous period in the playwright’s life, Driver and Haddow refuse to let the situation’s inherent comedy become bogged down in its apparent drama. In this respect Chekhov in Yalta is a worthy piece of posthumous redemption, successfully portraying Chekhov in the manner in which he struggled to be recognized.

The entire Seanachai cast offers wonderfully rich, tremendously physical performances. In particular, Thomas Vincent Kelly as Chekhov demonstrates a true gift for comic timing: his Chekhov is aware of his own limitations but unwilling to accept them, drawing attention away from his physical infirmities with a barrage of acerbic one-liners. Equally appealing are Mark L. Montgomery’s roguish, flamboyant Gorky, Justine Scarpa’s overtaxed and underfulfilled Masha Chekhov, and John Dunleavy’s bumbling, self-absorbed Stanislavsky.

Also bewitching is Joe Wade’s lavish, ornate set, which provides a textured backdrop for the play’s decadent proceedings. Wade’s design makes full use of the Chopin Theatre’s unusually tall, deep space by scattering performers’ chairs around the stage, placing a large tree adorned with hanging lanterns on one side, and covering the floor with a thin blanket of colorful dried leaves that extends to the first row of audience seats. Exploiting every nook and crevice of the stage, Wade creates the illusion of a lazy autumn evening in a rural setting.

But the real attraction of Seanachai’s production is Kim Rubinstein’s direction. In her staging of Old Times last year at Court Theatre, she skillfully drew out every uncomfortable pause and awkward silence in Harold Pinter’s script to gut-wrenching length. Chekhov in Yalta represents a completely different set of challenges–like juggling a cast four times as big and working with a script brimming with potentially obscure Chekhov and Russian-theater in-jokes. Rubinstein responds admirably by keeping the pacing brisk and the blocking tight, giving the script’s comic bits a madcap energy while exercising restraint in its more dramatic moments.

Chekhov in Yalta may borrow its characters from the dusty annals of history, but the play animates each with a vital spirit and purpose. In one of the show’s earliest scenes, Chekhov, Bunin, and Gorky engage in potentially dull small talk, dwelling on trivialities and griping about women–perhaps the last thing you’d expect from three of Russia’s most profound writers. And yet the idea of the trio spending a moment of leisure waxing philosophical on social ills and moral injustices is a lot less plausible. Stale, staid literary adaptations and Merchant-Ivory period pieces might be in vogue, but they rarely offer more than a single, blighting vision of history. Although Chekhov in Yalta takes place in the earliest years of the 1900s, it lives and breathes in the 1990s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chechov in Yalta theater still.