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StageStruck: A Bit of a Buddhist

Theaters are finding the secret smile in Chekhov's Russian gloom.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011
Chris Rohmann Photo
Steve Angel, Mark Teffer and Kelsey Flynn in the August Company's OnWord: Checkhov

I've seen 150 plays this year, and fully a tenth of them were by one playwright: Anton Chekhov. This is the guy Ira Gershwin was thinking of when he penned the lyric "With love to lead the way/ I've found more skies of gray/ than any Russian play/ could guarantee." Not the writer you'd expect to be on the most-produced list more than a century after his death.

Most of Chekhov's central characters—especially in his late masterpieces, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard—wallow in the throes of despair, regret and/or self-delusion. But Chekhov himself famously called his plays "comedies," a label that was long considered ironic at best. The term— the very idea—was rejected by his great champion, Stanislavski, whose lachrymose directorial approach to the work set the tone for a century of Chekhov productions. In the last couple of decades, though, theater companies have begun to take that "comedy" designation, well, seriously.

A kind of rueful half-smile plays at the edges of the plays—the author's acknowledgement that there's something a little ludicrous about his characters' hopeless dreams and self-inflicted failures. And there are actual guffaws available as well. These days, Uncle Vanya's frantic shooting spree and the drunken party scene in Cherry Orchard often verge on slapstick.

This re-evaluation has not only brightened some of the Russian gloom that marked the plays in the past; it has also ignited a burst of new interest in the playwright whose edgy dramas—let's call them tragicomedies—defined psychological realism but also prefigured theater of the absurd. New York's Classic Stage Company is currently completing its multi-year Chekhov Cycle with The Cherry Orchard, which was also mounted earlier this year by the National Theatre in London—a production Valley theater lovers were able to enjoy in the Amherst Cinema's high-def NT Live series.

And this year alone, three local theaters have mounted adventurous evenings of Chekhov one-acts and prose pieces, including early works that really are comedies in the usual ha-ha sense. Mount Holyoke College's theater department presented a pair of battle-of-the-sexes burlesques in which the best-laid plans end in chaos. At the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School, Chekhov on the Rocks, with a Twist mixed a cocktail of eight one-acts and short-story adaptations, including farcical takes on marriage and courtship, social status and even playwriting.

The area's most ambitious Chekhov outing was August Company's annual OnWord production, a potpourri of short theater pieces on a common theme, derived from literature not originally written for the stage. This year's topic, Chekhov, was embodied by original adaptations from a number of his prose sketches, along with a Raymond Carver story about the author's death and a puppet show featuring the Chekhov from Star Trek. Sly allusions to three of the plays came in distinctively 20th-century songs about seagulls, sisters and cherries.

The evening's director, Liesel de Boor, told me she was drawn to Chekhov's "loving, amused eye, that stands at a distance and watches," and to his themes, ordinary but universal: "Love and desire and people's aspirations to be other than they are, and finding true happiness in accepting themselves." In regard to which, she added, "He's a bit of a Buddhist, is Chekhov."

Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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