Will Leschber gets Chekhovian.
Let me begin by saying that I love visiting Chekhov. There’s nothing like the dark catharsis that comes from watching Anton Chekhov’s characters meander circles around each other for over two hours and end up in roughly the same place in which they started. Nothing earth shattering happens. Yet everyone is more clearly acquainted with growing ever older and increasingly colder. I don’t want to live in these plays. But to visit and mourn with these characters for a time, that satisfies some desire to feel and purge melancholy. This exact aspect of depressing hopeless is why many have relayed to me their disdain for this Russian playwright. But to each their own. Having this affection, I absolutely went out of my way to see the Berkeley Rep production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”. This Christopher Durang play takes the tropes of Chekhovian drama and packages them in a comedy.
It is said that Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies which were turned into dramas by their respective directors. While I don’t agree with “Uncle Vanya” being categorized as a comedy, I do think that the balance of humor and sadness is inherent to Chekhovian drama. This is something that film director Louie Malle plays with in his 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street.” What would make for a better film/theatre comparison than a play realistically portraying characters trapped by their Chekhov namesakes and a film that parades itself as a play in pre-production.
Malle’s film opens with shots of New York City’s bustling 42nd St. The cast meets and greets each other with affection on their way to rehearsal. Immediately, we get a sense of the community aspects built into creating theater with a group of friends. The space in which they are rehearsing lies in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre. The creative players are surrounded by a hundred years of theatre history falling apart around them. It’s simultaneously melancholy and invigorating. “Its all crumbling but its all so beautiful,” says one of the actors. Fitting for Chekhov, I’d say. Durang’s play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, also takes place in the shadow of a hundred years of Chekhovian history. Old tropes and familiar character types are used to delight the audience and surprise them too.
Back on 42nd St, the actors and director converse about the day to day of life in the theatre. All of a sudden we then are thrown into the “actual” rehearsal. The switch between “real-life” conversation amongst actors and the written dialogue for “Uncle Vanya” is seamless. Our only tip is a small group including the director who are now shown now uniformly watching the interaction between performing actors. Where is the line between an actor and a character? Is there one? Christopher Durang plays with this line in his play as well. However he plays with it in a different way. The characters within “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are named after Chekhovian characters. To most theatre goers, this goes without saying. The question watching the play unfold is then this: Is there a line between the original characters and the new? How closely are these recycled types tied to their original creations? Herein lies the fun. We are delighted to see characters making light (and dark) of their lot in life. We are also happy to see when Durang’s characters break away from the sad distinction of the Chekhovian original. We get to see a difference. This is not the case with the film. “Vanya on 42nd St” doesn’t draw a distinction between actors and the characters they portray. We know they are different but a clear distinction isn’t provided. They wear the same regular 90’s street clothes and speak in the same accents. This gives us question of identity to ponder. The ponderance of where one reality begins and another ends is intrinsic to the nature of theatre and yet, in this instance, it is more fully displayed in a film. The Berkeley Rep production presents characters who have to fight past the melancholic history built into their names and given identities. The film presents actors who are more real as characters rehearsing than as actors conversing.
It’s interesting how within the film, the delivered dialogue once the rehearsal has begun feels more natural than the conversations between actors at the opening. Is this just something in the way we expect to hear dialogue delivered within a performance that doesn’t line up with the less theatrical, everyday speech of the opening? Or is it a choice director, Louie Malle, is making about what is more real: everyday interaction or performance on a stage? The Vanya within Berkeley Rep’s production at one point writes and puts on a unconventional play. His aims to get at deeper truth than everyday experience. The play within the play finishes before its end as the author, Vanya, stumbles into a diatribe railing against change and reflecting on the culturally shared experiences he had as a youth. 106 million people watched the finale of MASH. More than half of all American households tuned in. If you didn’t watch, you heard about it. Everyone shared this. Nowadays we have so many more strands connecting us and only feel more isolated. This is the rampant subject matter of the tirade deftly delivered by Anthony Fusco. This idea is not new. Chekhov wrote about these things a century ago. But the presentation is stellar and the subject matter is still potent. As Nina says in “Uncle Vanya”, “The old are like the young. They want someone to pity them.”
In the end, the film uses the tools of the close proximity camera to access this Chekhov play through quiet realism. It’s an odd thing to say considering we are watching actors rehearse out of costume in a theatre that looks nothing like the setting of the play. The facade is on full display. The entirety of the story presentation is less realistic than a staged play and yet when we are shown these characters in close-up the emotions on screen resonate with a personal and quiet reality. That is where the film succeeds. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” succeeds by playing with 100 year old characters and making them new again. The themes Anton Chekhov wrestled with in his life time still have to be fought through today. Have I wasted my youth? What is the point of a life unfulfilled? Is happiness illusory? Since these questions can only be answered individually, I welcome the altered Chekhov presentations given through Louie Malle’s film and Christopher Durang’s play.
The Berkley Rep production plays through Oct 27th. And “Vanya on 42nd Street” is available to purchase digitally on itunes, Amazon and Vudu.