Maybe I’m making too much of a moment. Maybe it’s Mac Wellman’s fault. But hasn’t Chekhov recently become something of a piñata in downtown New York theatre? The Russian master’s canon, it seems, is being cracked open from all sides, particularly by female writers and theatremakers.
Take Annie Baker’s critically acclaimed Uncle Vanya at Soho Repertory Theatre this past summer, which turned the company’s Walkerspace into a parlor, replete with cushions and samovar, where audience and players alike could intimately revel and despair in the rhythmic brutalities of flawed people attacking and consoling each other using inadequate language. This Jan. 3–19, P.S. 122’s COIL Festival features two inventive productions by artists not often associated with the naturalism or realism with which we label Chekhov (fairly or not): Half Straddle’s Seagull (Thinking of You); and Kristen Kosmas’s There There, a meditation on a minor character in Three Sisters, the misfit Vasily Vasilyevich Solyony.
The productions themselves are entirely coincidental, no doubt, but maybe there’s something in the air—a cultural whisper that Chekhov’s work, regularly celebrated in the commercial and not-for-profit repertory and always ripe for revival, is particularly ripe at this moment for stylized theatro-philosophical excursions by bold women—particularly ones who “don’t traffic in realism” (as Kosmas puts it). Maybe 20 or 50 years on there will be a clear and convincing thesis (or several of them) on why all the Chekhovs at this cultural moment, but from here in the winds of Chekhov mania, the whys are hazy.
At a recent panel at the New Museum, where artistic director Tina Satter and her Half Straddle company are in residency, the artists tried to take some measure of this Chekhov wave. Organized by Satter and the museum’s Travis Chamberlain, and moderated by Jessica Del Vecchio, “My Chekhov, Not Yours” brought together Satter, Kosmas and Baker; as well as Big Dance Theater’s Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, who will present Man in a Case, an adaptation of two Chekhov short stories, this February at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov.
As the conversation shuttled between these artists’ variant aesthetic imperatives—Baker spoke of Vanya having been her favorite play for so long she’s forgotten why; Satter of the connections she drew between The Seagull and her company; and Kosmas of her perplexed fascination and even reluctant identification with Solyony—a consistent point of return was playwright and teacher Mac Wellman, with whom Baker, Satter and Kosmas all studied at Brooklyn College. (Full disclosure: So did I—as does American Theatre associate editor Eliza Bent, who is a cast member of Half Straddle’s Seagull.)
Baker, now a teacher herself at New York University, measures Chekhov’s characters against characters her students find in the world—she sends them out on a Wellman-inspired quest to transcribe overheard dialogue, with all its attendant ums, ahs, stops, starts, non-responses and sudden cliffs. This is a bone Wellman has long been picking with mainstream American theatre writing: People don’t actually respond to each other in conversation, he maintains, so why must they always do so in well-made American plays?
Chekhov’s characters don’t respond to one other—they struggle to say what they mean and aren’t quite able to. Nor do they listen. They reach for each other or verbally push each other away. They trip over their words. They get stuck between themselves and the possibilities beyond themselves. The conversational veritas and communicative disintegration that Baker emphasizes with her students is essential to her own Vanya, and also galvanizes the current new works by Satter and Kosmas.
Satter’s ladies are often stuck. They’re at a remove. Whether on the tundra (as in 2008’s The Knockout Blow), a difficult-to-swim-to island (2009’s Family), or even behind the stadium bleachers (2012’s Away Uniform), there are barriers confining them in an uncomfortable, perhaps even paralytic, place. Each time Half Straddle offers us a piece forged from a Satter script, a Chris Giarmo soundscape and the collaborative exhilaration of their collective, we expect the design feel of an American Apparel–outfitted Space Station Mir—there’s a lot of love and some curve-ball catharsis, but nobody ever quite gets to their proverbial Moscow. So it seems natural for the company, in the most ambitious project of its five years of work, to take on Chekhov.
For Satter, the decision to engage with Chekhov “had everything to do with The Seagull,” particularly the figure of Nina. “This beautifully flawed teenage actress,” Satter reasons, “speaks in a slightly overwrought, subtextual way that feels so familiar to the writing I have done for young female characters.” Satter connected aspects of Nina to Emily Davis (who plays a version of the character in the upcoming production), and went on to find Seagull parallels to all her company members (the venerated actress Arkadina, for instance, is refracted in veteran downtown performer Suzie Sokol). “On both personal and artistic levels,” Satter notes, “the original play taps into dynamics my collaborators and I know from regularly working together, and the constant balancing out of personalities and egos, ideas about art-making, success and failure, and the inherent love and sense of family that underscores it all.”
Satter’s focus is on the feminine, the re-contextualization of desire, and family dynamics. In her company’s modus operandi, gender is not fixed and sexuality is fluid, so she works between Chekhov’s lines to find truths planted by the playwright, perhaps inadvertently, by way of his openness to the vagaries of the human spirit and the disconnect between thought and action. Satter describes her production as “aesthetically and textually like a snow globe of The Seagull being shook,” wherein her methods for saying the unsaid merge with Chekhov’s own.
In Act 4 of The Seagull, for example, Konstantin Treplev questions his own attempts to forge new forms in his writing: “The more I write, the more I think it’s not a matter of old forms and new forms; what’s important is to write without thinking about forms at all. Just write and pour out whatever’s in your heart.” Konstantin’s realization speaks to Satter about her own work, and to Half Straddle’s compulsion to present honest, sloppily complicated reflections of life in each stage moment.
Kosmas recently gave a talk at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where she teaches, that touched on how the unlikely circumstances of her play There There worked themselves into being. “I re-read Three Sisters a few years ago,” she recalls, “and was struck by a character who actually has quite a small part in the play—in fact, most people, when I tell them I’m making a play inspired by Solyony, can’t remember who he is or that he was even in the play. This has become one of the things about him that’s the most interesting to me—his forgettable nature.”
A refresher: The soldier Solyony is a morbidly digressive, possibly sociopathic hanger-on in the Prozorov home. There There is a dual-language, live-translated meditation on the character that, through a series of circumstantial mishaps, morphs into a “theatrical roller-coaster about being the completely wrong person in the totally wrong place at the exact wrong time doing all the wrong things,” Kosmas proffers. In her script, Christopher Walken, on tour with a solo play inspired by Solyony, has mysteriously fallen off a ladder (offstage), and Karen, who once proofread the script, is asked to go on in his place, alongside Leo, a Russian translator. The play collages all of Solyony’s language with some of Kosmas’s own. “A part of me died in the duel,” reflects Kosmas, appearing as Karen, standing in for Christopher Walken as Solyony. If that’s a lot to wrap your head around, the language makes it easier—Kosmas has her own poetic language that mixes the lush and dreamlike with banal anxiety, curling cascading ideas into bursts of staccato clauses.
Language is both a propellant and vexing loop that controls Karen; she tries valiantly, in the service of her author and avatar Kosmas (and ostensibly in the service of the indisposed Walken) to take Solyony past where we leave him after the final act of Three Sisters, but we always end up back there, and it’s uncertain whether we’ve been examining Solyony’s emotional obstructions, or Karen’s, or our own.
Because Kosmas is fearlessly intuitive as a writer, and lullingly defiant as a performer, we are never quite sure where Karen’s mind will lead us. She says things we can’t allow ourselves to say. Sokol’s Arkadina from Seagull (Thinking of You) puts this sense of indirection and equivocation another way: “I just don’t know what I actually want, or, I’m not going to admit it in a super real way.” Which is the kind of double-speak that could use an irreverent translator. My attempt: “I think I might want this, and I’m trying as hard as I can to be clear about it.” What’s more Chekhovian than that?
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens, N.Y.