What is it about Chekhov?

By Damaris Montalvo

In the past couple of years, I have seen a fair amount of adaptations of Anton Chekhov’s plays – enough to put them in a table:

table of chekhov

And when so many theatre companies are adapting his works, you’ve got to wonder: why? What is it about Chekhov that’s so important for today’s theatre audiences to experience? What are these adaptations saying about society, about us, about the reality that we live in? And why are they often adaptations instead of straight productions?

Anton_Chekhov_with_bow-tie_sepia_imageIt’s certainly not the plot. I’m by no means a Chekhov expert, but the productions I’ve seen are very unconcerned with plot. Not a lot “happens” in these plays. They’re mostly plays where the characters sit around in a room talking, often loving unrequitedly, and lamenting their reality while longing for the alternative they’d rather be living in.

Now, that description may be greatly oversimplified, but the point is that Chekhov’s work is about the characters themselves – their trials, tribulations, trivialities, and turmoil (#alliteration). And that’s kind of the purpose, I think: to show us how everyday people can be completely cognizant of the discrepancy between desire and reality, and the purposeful choices of some to do something to bridge the gap, versus the choices of others to merely observe and lament the void. They are plays that show action versus inaction, and how choosing to not choose is as much of a decision as committing to a choice. The character of Nina flat-out brings this to the forefront when she asks Trigorin if Shakespeare’s Hamlet was asking “the right question”: whether it should be “to be, or not to be” or “to act, or not to act.”

SFB_0311 copy2In a very real way, Stupid Fucking Bird (SFB) asks us – the audience – to act, to be present, to be another player in this cast. SFB constantly breaks the fourth wall and asserts its meta-theatricality, sometimes in ways we’re used to, like the classic play-within-a-play, but often in ways we’re not used to. For example, having actors address the audience directly is arguably common, but SFB goes beyond the direct address and actually, actually expects you to answer the questions thatare being posed to you. SFB asks you to engage in a real dialogue, to take responsibility for your role as the audience, for you to treat the characters not as “fictitious people” but as people made of flesh and bone, standing right before you, with real, deep feelings.

I’ve often heard that actors don’t “pretend” or “lie,” but that they find the truth within themselves to play a character, to become that character. And I’m 100% certain that in the moment Will Bradley asks us how he can get Nina back, he is asking it as Conrad, not as Will.

SFB_0318 copy2

I’ve seen the play four times, and one of my favorite moments was when an audience member suggested that Conrad could get Nina back pretending to be in love with Mash and making Nina jealous. It was my favorite moment because Adam Silver (who’s playing Dev, whose in love with Mash), raised his hand and said, “I’m right here.” I loved that moment because in the intense dialogue that’s happening between Conrad and the audience, it’s easy to forget that Dev is there, or to think that he’s only going to be in the background chuckling like the rest of us. But in that moment, Adam Silver reminded us once again that Dev observes everything and feels everything as well, so he reasserts his existence.

This moment, of course, adds to the humor. And that’s what I think is the real genius behind these adaptations: the comedy. I remember Tina Kronis and Richard Alger once mentioned in a talkback that Chekhov is actually funny, and that many of his works were written as comedies. I feel that sometimes when we read or see a straight rendition of the original, we perceive the bleakness, the loss, the heartache … and not so much the humor. In these adaptations, humor plays an essential role. Impro Theatre also caught on to this, as the two productions I saw were very funny – but not without gravitas or dire consequence.

trig at tableYou know, in a way, Chekhov’s plays aren’t unlike Seinfeld – the incredibly popular TV show with people whose idiosyncrasies and everyday obsessions and trivialities are heightened to great comedic effect. Chekhov’s characters are just as quirky and conflicted as Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. Because, well … they’re human. They’re real. As Trigorin reminds us, we “are all so fucked up in such endlessly fascinating ways,” that he can’t help but to love us. He can’t help but loving the messy, complex, weird beings that we are.

And he’s right … ‘cause, you know, he’s brilliant.

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