Those of you who live in or plan to be in New York in the next week: run, don’t walk, to the Kraine Theater in the East Village, to see this wonderful stage adaptation of a Chekhov short story by Studio Six, the American studio of the Moscow Art Theater. Studio Six is a group of North American actors who studied together in Russia at the legendary Moscow Art Theater, completing the same course that Russians take. This is their second New York production (this past summer they put on Ostrovsky’s Too Clever By Half, which was also very good), and it is a showcase for the sheer intelligence of the group.
I don’t want to spoil the show for anyone who does go to see it, but I will give you some idea of why I think this is such a special production.
Chekhov is oftened deadened by an attempt to be true to period. The stuffiness of parlors and complicated women’s wear has a profound distancing effect, whereas was Chekhov is about nothing if not emotional immediacy. Moreover, many American productions of Chekhov seem to be under the impression that his works are moody and depressing, whereas in fact they are very funny. (People make the same mistake about Beckett, and for similar reasons.)
This company gets Chekhov, to their core. The production is primarily an adaptation of “The Story of an Unknown Man,” a novella-length story. The translation and adaptation was done by the company itself, primarily by Adam Muskin, who was also one of the directors of the production. The style of the production is basically expressionist – the set is all-white, the costumes are scraps of clothing that symbolize character; most wonderfully, they make ample use of colored water and fabric as flexible symbols of life, or femininity, or emotion – but not abstractly so. Every choice relates reigning conceit, that the production is, in fact, an experiment, or a kind of therapy, taking place in the Anton Chekhov Memorial Hospital. The notion of people as spiritually diseased is very pregnant, and notion of Chekhov-as-therapy is marvelous. For the first act, the conceit hovers as a potent metaphor in the background, but doesn’t have a life of its own. But then the second act begins with the intrusion of a different Chekhov story, and the way the intrusion is executed makes the whole conceit suddenly vibrant with life, and reconceives the entire production. The whole conceit, and the careful way in which it has been worked into every corner of the production, paradoxically has the opposite of a Brechtian alienation effect. Rather than pushing us away from the characters, it draws us towards them, because we are exposed to their essences, without he usual period clutter getting in the way. We remember that these are people we met yesterday, on the street, on the subway, at the office, in our own bedrooms, and not, fundamentally, the products of a particular time and place. Chekhov was a product of that time and place, but what he has given us is a portrait of humanity, and as long as we are human that portrait will be a portrait of us as well.
The acting is very fine all around, but special mention must be given to the three leads, Vaz Shantosham as Vladimir Ivanich, Raphael Schklowsky as Georgiy Ivanich Orlav, and Jill Dion as Zinaida Fyodorovna. The production still has a few rough edges to be smoothed out, and doesn’t start as strongly as it might, but nonetheless this is an incandescent evening of theater, put on by a company with obvious intelligence and a very powerful vision of what theater can be. We will all be hearing more from them in the years to come.