FOLLOW THE VODKA: Introductions

Today we’re excited to premier a new regular columnist: writer/producer/director Robert Estes!

Photo for Theater Pub

A few weeks ago, I was asked by SF Theater Pub if I would like to write an occasional, recurring entry for their blog wherein I would discuss a play while having one of my favorite drinks in one of my regular bar redoubts. Hey, I’m not an actor, I’m the booze relief.

Seriously, though, I’d feel remiss in writing about theater and drinking without acknowledging that there’s often a very troubled relationship between theater people and booze. I only got into theater in my 43rd year on the planet, and, then, shortly afterwards, for some reason, I began really looking forward to an artfully made drink. Often, when I mentioned grabbing a drink after rehearsal or performance, I was surprised how quickly and strongly that the theater person would say that they don’t touch a drop. The sharpness of the words instantly conveyed their painful journey to abstinence. In a future post, I’m sure that I’ll take up the tense relationship between the bipolar world of theatrical enterprise and problem drinking.

For now though, I’ll just say that I tend to follow my mother’s rule, “I like to drink, but I don’t like to be drunk,” which is sort of the perfect excuse for anything, “I like to drive 140 miles an hour, but I don’t like to crash.” Still, I find so far for me that drinking is often a necessary complement to the inherent anxiety of the theatrical endeavor as well as just being my way of following Montaigne’s warm advice that we should allow ourselves to cultivate one vice.

Although it is great fun to enjoy the drinking vice with other theater people, I also love going to places where not only it is unlikely that I’ll know anyone, it is unlikely that anyone from the bay area will be there. Such a place is The Buena Vista near Fisherman’s Wharf, where they serve, as many of you already know, rows and rows of Irish Coffees to throngs and throngs of tourists, so that I’m sure the place is often on the unwritten but ever-present avoid list of many native San Franciscans–although “native” in this use probably just means anyone that has lived here longer than someone newly arrived and much less cool than them.

Since I have pretensions of coolness, I rarely order the Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee; rather, I quite knowingly order one of their martinis, which, like milkshakes come not only with a glass but also with the accompanying tin, a very nice bargain. Tonight, in honor (or more accurately, in lack of honor) of reading Anton Chekhov, I’m having a Vodka Martini; yet, if I were being annoyingly true in spirit to Uncle Vanya, I would just be pounding vodka shots. I’m also reading what I consider to be the best Chekhov biography (although it is not a proper biography), which is a book of his letters entitled Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, edited & annotated by Simon Karlinsky, translated by Michael Henry Heim. Interspersed among the many letters are sparkling essays on thematic and social concerns, and voluminous, yet concisely written footnotes—all of which are first rate and engaging and help greatly in gaining a deeper understanding of his works.

But nowhere in the whole book do they discuss the key character trait of Uncle Vanya’s Astrov–which leads directly to an understanding of his descent in the play–his vodka drinking! In the very first scene, when asked if he’d like a shot, he says no. Soon enough, he relents and has a shot, but with bread, so that the effect of alcohol will be lessened. By the end of the play, he’ll have the shot of vodka and specifically decline the bread —he most assuredly finishes the play as a confirmed alcoholic.

Naturally, Astrov’s alcoholic trajectory is not a happy thought or a thought that brings much comfort when sitting in a bar alone on a Monday night at midnight having a double vodka martini (oh yeah, that tin I mentioned before is definitely an entire second drink), but the beautiful part of the Buena Vista is that you can always talk to the people next to you because they’re not from here, they want to know where you’re from and they want to tell you where they’re from, it’s great. They’re tourists! Ugh!
But I love “tourists!” I love any group that gets some kind of derogatory name attached to it. In the 1980s, everyone would put down “yuppies,” even people who looked and acted completely like yuppies. I thought I was a yuppie. I was young, urban and sort of professional. Would you rather be an YSUPIE? Young, suburban, professional—and with a horrible acronym? Nowadays, everyone puts down “hipsters.” I wish I could be a hipster! But I’m not cool enough. As I thought a few months ago, my only true goal in life is to be the first yupster, so that I can be the most put-down person ever!

So I think these thoughts which seem to come from some unknown yet central part of myself as I sit in the bar and re-read the letters of Chekhov, particularly this one from March 4, 1888:

“The people I’m afraid of are the one who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, non indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all their forms…Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

Wow, I suppose each person reading so much clarity would find their own sentence of bliss, but for me sitting in the bar, I now instantly recall when reading that letter for the first time decades ago how strongly the simple sentence “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices” pierced my own thoughts. And I hope and I think that reading that letter is why I’ve often felt like I was a “yuppie” or a “hipster” or a “tourist.” I would rather join with the labeled than be one of the labelers.

As Bill English of SF Playhouse says, theater is an empathy gym. And I do feel that the great reason to read Chekhov’s letters or attend one of his depressing plays—well, let’s face it, depressing is the typical can-do American’s putdown of the apparently terminally stalled nature of his plays—is that ultimately pained empathy is more beautiful than glossy positivity.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not really falling into the vice of labeling—a vice that I do not want to cultivate. It’s just damn hard for me not to label people that I disagree with politically. Of course, it’s easy to label the red state politicians, but I even caught myself labeling the other side in the current blue debate. The labels seem to be getting more extreme: “corrupt” for “hypocritical,” “deranged” for “misinformed,” “treasonous” for “just plain wrong.” But the thing is, some of the politicians that I don’t agree with are deranged, or close to it. Eek, well, Theater Pub Blog, an extended political handwringing is not on offer here, but I just want to note the obvious tension between trying not to label and seeing that right now in politics it is almost impossible not to do so.

Just for instance, I come back to an example of labeling that Chekhov once described that I wonder if many in San Francisco would not find perfectly valid: he said that in a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, so many people would automatically know who was in the right simply by the labels “landlord” and “tenant.” Some would instantly know the greedy landlord was to blame, others would say the scoundrel tenant. It almost seems that not using labels in this instance is a denial of the current reality in San Francisco.

So with my frustration about keeping a basic equilibrium about humanity as I try to figure out what is labeling and what is not and my simple desire to retain my usual enjoyment of human personality in all its contradictions, I find sitting in the Buena Vista, talking to people from all over the place is actually kind of soul-inspiring. Yes, you jaded San Franciscans, if you’re tired of all the hipster irony and yuppie, I mean techie, consumerist overreach, come on over and talk to Clare and Bill (from Ohio!), who are apparently completely irony-free and don’t know tech from teach. But they’re extremely nice, and gracious enough to treat yours truly to an Irish Coffee. Now I’m definitely not cool enough to pass up that action.

Cheers until next month and another adventure in pairing the perfect cocktail with a play!

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Chekhov’s Gun (or, “In Praise of Simplicity”)

Dave Sikula keeps it simple.

So, not to toot my own horn (because Jeebus knows that writing a blog post implies no personal aggrandizement), but I’m currently working on a translation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

I find the process of translation and adaptation fascinating. In a sense, I’m writing the play along with Chekhov. As I work my way through the (surprisingly short) text, I get to see what he’s putting in and what he’s leaving out. I look at the choices he made and have to puzzle out why this character says this or that character does that. On top of that, I have feel I have to find a balance between what a Russian doctor wrote at the end of the 19th Century and how an American audience will receive that information in the 21st.

My process has changed over the years. I did my first translation (from “Три сестры” to “The Three Sisters”) after a good friend of mine went through a particularly bad breakup. The play has always been her favorite and I thought I’d do a translation to try to cheer her up. (She’s a very good director in Los Angeles, and I had hopes she’d direct it – she still hasn’t.) I went to the library (remember libraries?) and got a HUGE Russian-English dictionary, and started going through it, word by word.

It took me six weeks to get through the whole play. At first, I could manage half a page a night, but by the end, I was up to about two pages. (My current pace is about four or five.) I start with a literal translation. Taking “Елена Андреевна «одного часа, говорит, не желаю жить здесь… уедем да уедем… Поживем, говорит, в Харькове, оглядимся и тогда за вещами пришлем…» Налегке уезжают. Значит, Марина Тимофеевна, не судьба им жить тут. Не судьба… Фатальное предопределение” to “Yelena Andreyevna ‘one hour, speaks, I do not wish to live here . . . We shall leave yes we shall leave… We shall live, speaks, in Kharkov, we shall look round and then behind things we shall send. . .’ Rough leave. Means, Marina Timofyevna, not destiny it to live here. Not destiny… Fatal predetermination.” After wrestling with it, I turn it into “Yelena Andreyevna says ‘I can’t stand one more hour here.’ She says ‘I don’t want to live here . . . we have to leave, and we have to leave now’ . . . She says ‘We’ll live in Kharkov for a while. We’ll look around, and then send for our things’ . . . They’re leaving everything behind. Marina Timofyevna, it just wasn’t their destiny to live here; just not their destiny . . . It was predestined by Fate.” At this point it’s still not perfect, but after I finish Act Four, I’ll go back and clean it up, using the lessons I’ve learned from going through the whole play (realizing patterns, turns of phrase, and character traits, among other thing) to go back and make everything clean, clear, and consistent.

One of the things we know about Chekhov is that he and Stanislavskii argued over his plays. (When I was in Moscow, I visited Chekhov’s grave, and was delighted to find that he and Stanislavskii are buried virtually head-to-head, so they can continue to argue through eternity.) Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies. Personally, I find them all very funny – at least, until the end when things go to hell. Stanislavskii drove Chekhov crazy by treating them as heavy dramas, casting a pall over them that exists to this day. I’ve seen probably dozens of productions of Chekhov, and they invariably steer right into the ditch of gloominess and self-indulgence. I’m not saying they’re broad farces (though Chekhov wrote plenty of those), but it seems like every time a translator or a director gets to a point in the script where it’s intended to be funny, they assume “Oh, it’s Chekhov; he couldn’t have meant that. What’s the darkest and most depressing way I can approach this?” That’s another challenge; making sure the humor and comedy are obvious enough to be apparent to even the dimmest director. Because of this assumption (that the plays are downers), directors and actors tend to indulge themselves and take the maximum time to wallow in emotion. This was another thing that drove Chekhov crazy; he insisted that his acts should take 12 minutes each to play. In spite of my feelings that the plays should have a brisk pace, I was surprised to see that this one has extraordinarily short acts. I’m well into Act Four and am only on page 38; I have to keep checking to make sure I haven’t left anything out.

That’s what I mean about simplicity. Chekhov could have given us much, much more, especially in terms of “events” happening. People sometimes complain that “nothing happens” in these plays, and while there aren’t any “plots” per se, and characters don’t really evolve for the most part (which is part of his point), they undergo massive emotion upheavals (which are frequently conveyed comedically). He figures out what he wants to do with his plays (which – like his stories – are usually intended to motivate people to change their stupidly mundane lives) and presents only the information he needs to get that point across.

I finished Act Three last night, which features one of the two guns in the canon. A lot of people talk about “Chekhov’s gun,” without really knowing either what it refers to (or even who Chekhov is; hint: he’s not the guy from “Star Trek” – whose name isn’t even spelled the same). The principle, to quote the man himself, is “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Simplicity is something I’ve come to embrace over the years. I started out loving big physical productions with lots of sets, costumes, wagons, and projections, but I know they come with equally big price tags. I still love them where appropriate, but as often as not, they’re not necessary. They’re big, bloated dinosaurs that are less about supporting a story and more about showing patrons how well (and how much of) their money has been spent. Big and florid may be flashy, but I’m finding it doesn’t do as well as cutting through to the heart of the story. When think back on the shows I’ve seen, it’s almost never the flashy effects I recall; it’s the moments of human interaction. Whatever gets in the way of that is extraneous and should be lost. No one will ever notice.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: I’m In an Ill Humour

Dave Sikula is bitching about British Theatre.

The misspelling above is intentional and the smallest of protests against what I see as a creeping Anglophilia in the theatre and, well, in general.

My wife and I saw the broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” tonight, and my dislike of the show and the production aside, it reminded me of something I wanted to discuss after seeing the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello” last week; namely, why the hell are the only productions seen in this format direct from London? *

Now, to make things clear from the start, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies who have burned me often enough that I’ll steer clear of them, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow in “The Magistrate;” “All’s Well That Ends Well”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just dull (Derek Jacobi in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing”); and some of them were just puzzling (the recent “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

But why is it always the Brits? What is it about that accent that turns otherwise-sensible Americans weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. (London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap.”) But now I’m just getting petty. My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

I found the production of “Merrily” pretty dull (an opinion in which I seem to be in the minority), but that’s not the point. If the exact same production had been mounted at, say, the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown in American cinemas.

Now, I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit. Road producers (I’m lookin’ at you, SHN!) probably think it would cramp their ticket sales. (Though it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows.)

I wouldn’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house (although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. For that matter, the films of “Les Mis” and “Phantom” didn’t seem to daunt their popularity as live attractions). But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three) are as worthy of a national audience as Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” from the National. But somehow the imprimatur of “London” makes it a must-see for some.

And it’s not just broadcasts of plays. How many times, especially in recent years, have we had to suffer through the lousy “American” accents of British actors? (It was actually a shock for me to see Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and hear Toni Collette play with her own Australian accent, so used was I to hearing foreigners play characters who were American despite no real reasons in the script.) Sure, there are actors (Collette herself, Hugh Laurie. Alfred Molina) who can do superb dialects, but there are just as many (such as the cast of “Merrily”) whose attempts are cringe-worthy. But they’re British, so the assumption is that they’re better trained and better actors solely because of their nationality.

(I’ve also noticed the creeping use of British English subject/verb agreement. I always find myself making mental corrections when a singular entity, such as a corporation or company is said to do something with a “have,” as in “BART have announced the strike has been settled.” It’s “has,” dammit. Or when someone is said to be “in hospital” or there’s some kind of scandal in “sport.” It just sets my teeth on edge.)

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; what they show us is usually worth seeing.” What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (the greatest thing I ever saw on stage was Théâtre du Soleil’s “Richard II.”) Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the Berkeley Rep production of which I so raved about in this space last time), Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.” As much as we all love the theatre – either as participant or spectator – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

* Okay, there were the broadcast of the production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Company” that starred Neil Patrick Harris, and Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore” and “The Tempest,” but those were rarities.

Working Title: Sad Autumn Roses, a Comedy

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.