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Chekhov, 'perfect playwright for Winnipeg,' focus of master festival

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At Home Theatre presents The Bear & Inside the Moscow Art Theatre at ChekhovFest.

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At Home Theatre presents The Bear & Inside the Moscow Art Theatre at ChekhovFest.

Anton Chekhov was the most self-deprecating of writers, quite uneasy with his growing fame and outrightly dismissive of any literary legacy.

Only months before the Russian physician succumbed to tuberculosis in 1904, he predicted to a friend that his works would be read for the next seven years. When questioned about such a curiously specific time frame, he answered, "Well, seven-and-a-half. That's not bad; I've got six years to live."

It wasn't long before Chekhov was dying and was handed a glass of champagne by his doctor -- it was tradition that a doctor salute his colleague on his deathbed with bubbly. The 44-year-old mumbled, "It's a long time since I drank champagne," drained his drink and, in a moment, stopped breathing.

Chekhov's prognosis, so unerring in medical matters, was woefully off the mark when it came to whether his modest output of short stories and plays would outlive him. In the intervening 110 years since, he has come to be regarded as a master storyteller and a founder of modern theatre. After Shakespeare, he is the most performed playwright in history.

John Hirsch, founder of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, was almost evangelical about his works, although the city's flagship company has not presented a Chekhov play since 1980, when a then-unknown American actress named Kathleen Turner appeared as Nina in Chekhov's breakthrough play The Seagull.

It was fledgling Winnipeg director Krista Jackson who discovered a long-forgotten copy of Bruce McManus's Moose Jaw-set adaptation of Chekhov's The Three Sisters and staged it in 2011 to launch her new company, zone41, in collaboration with Theatre Projects Manitoba. The revival prompted RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper to make Chekhov the subject of the 14th annual Master Playwright Festival that gets underway on six stages Thursday.

Here are a few questions to ponder about Chekhov before you hit the theatre.

 

PATRON PLAYWRIGHT OF WINNIPEG?

Winnipeg theatre-goers will have no trouble warming up to Chekhov, says Michael Nathanson, WJT artistic producer, who has adapted and set Ivanov in 1952 Winnipeg for the festival.

"I think he is the perfect playwright for Winnipeg," he says. "His plays are so deeply resonant and characteristic of what I think a lot of people's experience in Winnipeg is."

Nathanson says the many river city residents with a strong love-hate relationship with their hometown will recognize themselves in the many Chekhov characters who rail incessantly against their circumstances. Like Winnipeggers who look longingly to Toronto or Vancouver, his Russians felt the lure of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Also, like Winnipeggers, they can't wait to escape to their cottages at the lake when the warm weather arrives.

"Many people go, 'I really need to get out of here; if only I could, but I must stay,' which is the plot description of so many of his plays," says Nathanson. "There is nothing about a Russian winter and ennui that Winnipeggers can't relate to given what we go through."

 

GAME-CHANGER

His naturalistic style and obsession with the psychology of the human character revolutionized theatre.

Instead of melodramas with dashing heroes and cliffhanging plots that were the style of the day, he was the first to offer a reflection of ourselves in our stark ordinariness. That plays out on stage as little action and loads of soul-searching. Director Peter Brook compared Chekhov to listening to a tape recorder that had been accidentally switched on during a family argument.

"Seemingly nothing happens, but so much of life occurs," says Bill Kerr, a University of Manitoba theatre professor who is directing Aristocrats by Brian Friel, a.k.a. the Irish Chekhov.

You can see how nothing happens in Three Sisters became the forerunner for the nothing happens in Waiting For Godot.

You don't admire Chekhov's dramas for their plots. His plays can be summarized as a group of people show up for the weekend, have their moment and leave. It is his focus on the internal and the emotional rather than external plot that gives his plays their depth and intensity.

"You read Chekhov on the page and you think no way will people sit through two hours of this unless you invest the characters with all the things that happened before," says Jackson. "We call that subtext. The two characters are talking about the weather but really they are talking about how much they love each other. His characters say one thing and mean another."

It was that notion of subtext on which Konstantin Stanislawsky, artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre, developed his method of acting, or method acting, which is still dominant today. Through his collaborations with Chekhov, he trained his actors to convey strong emotions in a controlled and partially detached style.

 

ARE THEY COMEDIES OR TRAGEDIES?

Chekhov insisted The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were "gay, light-hearted comedies," although Stanislawsky -- the man who established the tradition for how Chekhov plays would be directed -- was adamant they were tragedies.

"His characters are in comedies who see themselves as being in tragedies," says Kerr. "They find the tragedy that is possible rather than the comedy that is just there waiting for them."

Kerr maintains Chekhov is genuinely funny and predicts that will be on display throughout the festival. It is traditional of English-language Chekhov productions to discover the daily absurdity that creates the comedy in his plays. If the festival was being held in Europe, or eastern Europe in particular, audiences would be in for a grimmer time.

"When people ask me what Chekhov plays are about I say they are a bunch of comedies with characters who are determined to find their tragedy," Kerr says.

 

SAINT AND/OR SINNER?

Apart from his writing prowess, Chekhov was a model citizen whom some critics dubbed St. Anton.

Born in 1860 in southern port city of Taganrog, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov survived a Dickensian upbringing with a tyrannical father, a shopkeeper who went bankrupt and fled to Moscow. The young medical student started writing farces for humour magazines (and was paid by the line) in order to support his parents, who showed no interest in his work. "Oh, with what trash I began," he once said of his writing career.

Chekhov spent much of his short life caring for others and having a positive impact on the world. He was even an early environmentalist, planting trees, building scores of gardens and speaking out against nature's destruction.

Handsome and witty, he was a magnet to women from an early age and the feeling was mutual. That side of his life was overlooked until recent biographers got their hands on his previously censored correspondence, which revealed he cut a wide swath through the womenfolk of Moscow, St. Petersburg and everywhere in between. What was worse, he reproduced the tangled romances of friends with embarrassing accuracy in his plays.

Late in life, he married actress Olga Knipper, and they were the Woody Allen and Mia Farrow of their day, in that they carried on a lengthy relationship but never lived together. He said, "I promise to be an excellent husband, but give me a wife, who, like the moon, will not appear every day in my sky."

 

IS THAT ALL THERE IS?

Theatre companies interested in participating in ChekhovFest discovered there are few options beyond his four cherished plays.

Producers today continue to try to squeeze more Chekhov onto the stage. Early this month it was announced that a British neuroscientist was going to adapt Chekhov's only work of non-fiction -- a report on the inmates of a remote penal colony he visited in 1890 -- into a one-man show in 2014.

For a theatre festival, the options are not plentiful beyond the big four masterpieces. Local groups have had to get creative by scouring his stories, letters, vaudeville pieces and homages to fill out what is now the largest master playwright festival yet. Presentations range from RMTC's full-scale revival of The Seagull -- starring Bethany Jillard who wowed last year as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind -- to the rude F#*koff ✓off by the bouffont clown troupe The Talentless Lumps.

"Some of us love Chekhov and some of us hate Chekhov, hence the title of our play, excuse my language," says Spenser Payne, one of the six lumpy creatures. "We are taking his comedy and putting into this absurd world. That's what clowns do."

Others offerings include:

  • Two versions of Three Sisters, a traditional staging and a clown musical adaptation.
  • At Home Theatre pairing the Chekhov farce The Bear with an interview, in the style of Inside the Actors' Studio, of the playwright's actress wife Olga Knipper.
  • Adhere and Deny are presenting a puppet version of Swan Song, the story of an actor at the end of his career dwelling on the evanescence of his profession.
  • The Shoestring theatre company has uncovered The Quick-Change Room, a 1995 American comedy about a Russian troupe making the transformation to capitalism while preparing to stage Three Sisters.
  • A revival of Mike Bell's Chekhov and Me, a rant about writer's block and the Russian playwright as tormentor.

For more information and schedules, go to www.masterplaywrightfest.com.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2014 C1

History

Updated on Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 6:43 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo

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