Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Anton Chekhov

Musical Review | Once/Twice | Two One-Act Musicals | Adaptation, Music and Lyrics by Paul Dick | Directed by Celine Rosenthal | Music Direction by Ming Aldrich-Gan | PASSAJJ Productions | Roy Arias Stage IV

… a show of sheer joy …

Thank heavens for Off-Off-Broadway!  It gives you the chance to see a superb work by Paul Dick who has written over 15 musicals based on classical works of literature, among them, Wuthering Heights at the Mint Theatre Space, and Madame Bovary reviewed here.  Still, his work hasn’t yet received the broad recognition it deserves — it’s awaiting!  And now’s your chance to come to know him, and see a moving, song-filled exciting show.

Once is adapted into musical theater from a one-act play, A Sunny Morning, by Serafin and Joacquin Quintero, and Twice is based on Anton Chekhov’s short story The Bear.  Each in different ways reminds us that, given half a
chance, love can overcome the distance between people and how tremendously lucky we are when we let it happen, whether for the first time or … twice.

ONCE with, L, Joseph Robinson as Gonzalo, R, Carmella Clark as Dona Laura, with jBrandon Grimes, behind, as Gonzalo’s servant. Photo: Louisa Pough

ONCE with, L, Joseph Robinson as Gonzalo, R, Carmella Clark as Dona Laura, with Brandon Grimes, behind, as Gonzalo’s servant. Photo: Louisa Pough

In Once, from the Quintero play, a proud, elegant elderly lady, Dona Laura (Carmella Clark) and a dour, feisty elderly man, Gonzalo (Joseph Robinson) engage in a tug-of-war over a park bench in Madrid.  Irritable conversation leads to revelation: she realizes they were once lovers “Thirty Years Ago” (the title of one of the beautiful songs) but doubts he knows it.  And if he doesn’t should she tell him? or let him remember her as the beautiful young girl she once was?   And .. .vice versa.  Will they pass as ships in the night?  Hope not!  A luscious abundance of songs … from “Changing Seasons,” “His Dream,” “Once,” “In A Villa In Valencia,” and more radiate naturally from their feelings and experience on this wondrous “Sunny Morning” (the song, “A Sunny Morning,” sung in its reprise as a musically exciting quartet).

A bold segue signaled by a large bottle of Smirnov vodka moves us to Russia and Twice, after Chekhov’s The Bear: Immediately we’re in a very funny song, “Woe!” another  stunning quartet in which servants and the bereaved widow, Elena (Emily Leonard) all sing, together but apart, just how they each really feel about last night’s sudden death of the master of the house.

Time passes — “A Year Of Mourning In Approximately Two Minutes” — and Smirnov (Brandon Grimes), a big bear of a man, arrives looking for repayment of a loan that Elena can’t pay until the day after tomorrow — not soon enough for Smirnov.

TWICE with Brandon Grimes as Smirnov.  Photo: Louisa Pough

TWICE with Brandon Grimes as Smirnov.  Photo: Louisa Pough

In a show-stopping song and performance, Brandon Grimes as Smirnov sings  out the names of all those who owe him money in the song, “If The Answer Is No” — as fast-paced and unstoppable as Figaro’s aria in The Barber of Seville, and thrilling.  What a tour de force of baritone singing by Mr. Grimes.  But all the performers in this beautifully produced and directed show have fine voices, heard directly without any mikes to intervene, and with Ming Aldrich-Gan’s piano expressing the beauty and vitality of Paul Dick’s music.

From the first moment to the last, this show has you smiling with sheer delight.

Once/Twice plays at Roy Arias Stage IV at the Times Square Arts Center in Manhattan through June 1, 2014.

Review | The Notebook of Trigorin by Tennessee Williams | a Free Adaptation of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Ann Dunnigan | Directed by Laura Braza | Attic Theater Company

Whatever Williams may have worked out for himself in this 1981 exercise of adaptation, he didn’t do Chekhov any good, much as he admired the Russian playwright.  Evidently it was important to Williams to write this play it but it’s of interest mainly to those with an active concern with theater history  — in that these are two very great playwrights and it could be said anything they did is of interest.

The play — Chekhov pure or filtered through Williams — is a web of unrequited love.  The characters gather on the estate of Sorin, brother of the famous actress Arkadina, who has come to vacation there with her lover Trigorin.  He is a successful and conventional writer, a foil for Konstantin, Arkadina’s son who, with his passionate, youthful belief in a need for “new forms” for literature, is staging his avant-garde play on an improvised outdoor stage.  Konstantin is in love with his actress, Nina who, in short order, falls in love with Trigorin (which might leave Konstantin available for Masha, the Steward’s daughter, who loves him passionately but it won’t happen).

The drama of the powerful first act of The Seagull — and it retains some of its power here — centers around Konstantin’s desire for his mother’s praise, attention and respect, and her laughing dismissal of his play which she finds absurd, with its all talk no action.  “Ah,” she whispers with amused irony to her worldly companion Trigorin, “recitative.”  Chekhov in this episode gave us great talk and action — and we did not need Masha to tell us before hand, as she does in Williams’ adaptation, that Arkadina “will despise the play this evening and make no secret of it.”  Here, as elsewhere, what Chekhov implies, Williams highlights with a magic marker.

Williams pushes hard to cast light on the fascinatingly equivocal relationship Chekhov created between Arkadina and Trigorin.  What is the nature of their bond?  Trigorin chafes at its restraints yet they remain together, his fling with Nina, and the baby produced from it, notwithstanding.  Williams responds to the ambiguities by making Trigorin bisexual, inserting flings with men as well as that with Nina, a characterization that in the context seems forced and somewhat implausible.

In Chekhov’s play, Dr. Dorm is a loving personality who, as a nature romantic, assigns passionate longings to the power of the nearby lake.  Dorn, in Chekhov, is a ray of hope amidst the bevy of dysfunctional characters.  In keeping with his own tragic vision, Williams’ turns him into a heartless misogynist.

The earlier part of The Notebook of Trigorin has more the feel and flavor of Chekhov, and as the play progresses Williams’ tragic sensibility and vision of characters living in a world of their own illusions become more dominant.  As in the characters of Trigorin and Dorn, this produces distracting disjunctions.  Williams pulls a rabbit out of the hat at the very end in a grand gesture by Arkadina.  It’s wondrously theatrical, and the one point where, for a moment, I felt Williams has actually improved on Chekhov, until I realized that Arkadina, narcissistic but in touch, would not have done it:  Blanche Dubois of Streetcar Named Desire might well have.

Michael Schantz conveys the confidence, and underlying agitation of Trigorin, the successful author and alluring man.  Jeremy Lawrence is amusing and touching as the estate owner, Sorin, who confronts in old age his failure to achieve his two goals:  to marry and to be a writer.

Beyond them, the acting is lackluster, one of the casualties of which is that the symbolic power of the seagull Konstantin shoots and presents to Nina as a love gift is lost.  Charise Green as Arkadina throws herself into arguments with effective no holds-barred emotionality but fails to convey the famous actress’s charisma.  She characterizes the narcissistic, dominating woman by screams so grating that I tucked in turtle-wise every time I saw them coming; otherwise she adopts an intimate affect so quiet a lot of her lines couldn’t be heard.

According to the program, Williams wrote this adaptation to make the “quiet” “delicate” Chekhov more accessible to American audiences.  “Our theatre has to cry out to be heard at all …”   But quiet, delicate Chekhov has done very well in America and around the world, as has Tennessee Williams, both deservedly.  Just not in this hybrid.

The Notebook of Trigorin  plays at The Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca district through May 18th.

Review | Ivanov by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Carol Rocamora | Directed by Austin Pendleton | With Ethan Hawke as Ivanov | Classic Stage Company

Ivanov is not as perfect a play as Chekhov’s Three Sisters (at Classic Stage) or The Cherry Orchard, which came later,  but I enjoyed it even more — filled with fascinating and amusing characters, it spills over into a rambunctious panorama of life.  That’s all the more amazing because — characteristically Chekhov — the characters like to proclaim that they’re  “bored ” but the play is vital and engaging — how does he do it?  One thing:  the writing is marvelous.  And in this Classic Stage production, the acting is superb, and Austin Pendleton’s naturalistic, soft-voiced direction highly effective in drawing you in and making you believe.

Ethan Hawk gives his all:  he understands every nuance of Chekhov’s portrait of the anguished, depressed Ivanov and portrays it vividly through voice, facial expression, and movement — he fairly dances through the part.  His is a particularly individualized performance, but all the actors are perfectly cast and draw the most of humor and meaning from their parts.

Ivanov, a landowner in late 19th-century Russia, is in straightened fiscal circumstances, is married to a woman he no longer loves, and has let his once ambitious agricultural plans for his estate fall by the wayside.

Plenty of reason to be depressed in all that, and so we first meet him lying in his rumpled white linen suit on his rumpled bed in daytime, fitfully trying to read.   Interruptions, such when the steward of his estate comes in with a shady — read modern exploitive — money-making scheme, exasperate him.  Reminders — as from the well-meaning, pompous young doctor, that Ivanov should save his wife Anna, who is dying of tuberculosis, by taking her for a long rest in a warm climate — exasperate him even more.

Sorry for himself as he feels, though, Ivanov is not a victim:  he’s brought his woes on himself, but he’s created a victim in his wife.  Five years ago, he passionately wooed her, and she gave up Jewish faith and her family for love of him.  Had he, back then, wooed her for her money?  so that his “falling out of love” is really disappointment that when she converted to his Russian Orthodox faith she lost her dowry?  Or did the stifling cloud of his depression simply descend upon him as Chekhov, a medical doctor, knew can happen?  We’re never sure.  One thing is clear:  Ivanov is not a good man — but a fascinating theatrical character, and fascinating to women.

Now Anna’s doctor is continually hammering at Ivanov to take her away for warmth and rest while Ivanov abhors the idea of being alone with her.  Anyhow, he doesn’t have the money.  He evades all pressing issues by going over to the Lebedevs’ estate where things are a lot more fun, even though he’s harassed by Zinaida Lebedeva, a tight-fisted  money lender, for the 9000 roubles he owes her.  There are a variety of acquaintances, characters, jokes, his warm friend, Paul Lebedev, and — brandy in the punch — the Lebdev’s 20-year old daughter, Sasha, who’s infatuated with him.

Anna and her faithful advocate and doctor follow him there, only to catch him kissing Sasha, which leads Anna to believe that Ivanov has always been false, their love a sham from the start, that the bitterest pill for a sick woman.   How Chekhov works out these situations of love and betrayal … well, let’s just say Ivanov finally does something forceful.

Such rich, abundant, fully realized theater as Classic Stage’s production of Ivanov  takes you beyond yourself.  Chekhov creates a full world that offers the bright, stimulating pleasure of attentiveness for the duration of the play.  And the characters are so alive, amusing and vivid that they stay with you in your world afterwards.

Ivanov  plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through December 9th, 2012.

Review | Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Paul Schmidt | Directed by Austin Pendleton | Classic Stage Company

… three ages of women …

Chekhov wrote Three Sisters for production on a proscenium stage but I think he would have been thrilled to see this expansion of his work in Classic Stage’s magnificent large and high performance space.  The potential breadth of Three Sisters is fulfilled in a way I’ve never seen before: the philosophical vision, the psychology and the drama enlarge as if here they’ve found a space to unfold their wings.

Irina, the youngest sister, is virginal and flits around wearing white.  Beginning the play on her 20th name day, Chekhov sets his theme, the struggle toward maturity.  Whom will Irina marry — a real life suitor, or an imagined love of her life dwelling in Moscow where the family once lived and where she longs to return?  Masha is the married woman, sensitive, witty, a trained pianist.  Now 25, she wed too young and, chafing at the bit of marital disappointment, carries on an affair with a dashing and idealistic officer temporarily stationed in town.  Olga, the oldest, is the spinster (at a mere 28!), and a school teacher, motherly and protective toward her sisters , her students and toward the old servant woman.

Together the three sisters represent the three ages of women: emblematic and at the same time richly drawn, fully individualized characters.

The sisters and their brother, Andrey, are living fairly well, following the deaths of their parents, in a provincial Russian town in the late 19th Century (Three Sisters was written in 1900).  The action centers around the family house.  Things have been moving along in a kind of status quo, marked by the loves and enjoyments that link the siblings and their individual frustrations and longings, shaded by an elegiac sense of a better past.

But Andrey shakes the status quo.  Unknown to his sisters, he’s been gambling what’s left of the family fortune, threatening the house’s ownership.  And he falls in love with, and then marries a coarse, noisy woman, Natasha, the opposite of the sisters in education, refinement and class background.  And when she has a baby — oh my a Baby — and ultimately another, she really rules the roost, thrusting the sisters out of their bedrooms and, it seems, ejecting them from their lives.

Will the sisters become victims?  Looks like it.  We worry for them, feel sad for them, while thinking something along the lines of the day of their class is done and here comes the New Russia.

But instead they grow.  Three Sisters is a play of self-actualization.  Each accommodates to reality in a different way.  Chekhov doesn’t make it easy for them.  When we think we know what needs to be done, new challenges roll in like tidal waves onto this quiet family in a quiet town.  The sisters draw strength from within and from each other.  Only Andrey ends up a flop and a laughing stock, a victim of his own weakness and under the thumb of his crude wife.  But the individual victories of the three sisters — not fantasy victories but genuine ones — are moving and resonate and remain in the mind as inspiring.

At the end one man, Fedotik, who has just lost all in a fire — as at the end all human beings lose everything — reminds us that ultimate loss does not negate that his life, and that these lives reach into the unseen future.  The production, designed for viewing on three sides in Classic Stage’s theater, with its central faceted and climbing set, continuing as a reflection in a smoky mirrored backdrop, carries that largeness of vision.  What a big play!

The acting is on a high level with two performances particularly strong.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is convincing as the agitated, seductive, artistic sister, verging on hysteria and yet holding on (one reviewer in the NY Times found her characterization too contemporary but no, Gyllenhaal gives us a fine embodiment of a “neurasthenic” woman known very well in 19th-century literature).  Jessica Hecht is charismatic as the older school teacher spinster — nothing dowdy here!  Her charm and warmth, the way we see her thinking in response the the events that pass before her eyes and ours, her growth in strength for what she doesn’t want but must take on — for others as well as herself — is compelling.  James Patrick Nelson moved me greatly in his final lines that link the present of the play with the ongoing theater of human hopes.

Three Sisters plays at Classic Stage through March 6th at 6:30.

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