Saturday, May 15, 2010

This is not a theatre review

This is really more about me.

I went with friends to see Anton Checkov's The Three Sisters at the Vortex Theatre this evening.

The set and costumes were good. The blocking was good, the directing and acting quite good. The many characters were well delineated. I did not have that conscious awareness that I was watching actors performing that one experiences when the acting is not so good. In other words, I think it was a top notch production.

And I left at intermission.

That is not a judgment on the production.

A primary criterion in my response to plays and movies is whether I care about the characters and what happens to them. Love them, hate them, be amused by them, feel compassion, feel anger... no matter; do I care? Do I want to see what happens?

And tonight I did not. About two-thirds of the way through the first act I was ready to go home but I waited until intermission after the second act. In a telling parallel, I also left years ago during the intermission of Waiting for Godot at The Berkeley Rep. Excellent production then as well but (1) in that case I had read the play when studying 20th century French drama in college and (2) I had more than enough. I knew nothing would happen in the second half. In the instance of tonight's play, I did not care what happens in the second half.

As I said, this is really more about me and what engages me or does not. Give me Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, thanks.

I believe it is also a testament to Checkov's success in expressing the claustrophobic frustration of people trapped in unfulfilling lives. The characters are bored, struggling, and making no progress toward a happier life. I felt incredibly claustrophobic. Physically there was a set with many characters crowded into it and I was not sitting in the front row where I usually sit and can stretch my legs. But it is the emotional claustrophobia of the characters in their situation the connected solidly. They were not getting out of their situation. I had a choice, and I exercised it.

So this is being written while the third and fourth acts are being performed. I congratulate the actors, the director, and the Vortex for doing a good job. And I want to share some of the director's notes.

Denise Schultz writes:
As a pompous undergraduate student in the late 1960's, I hated Anton Checkov's plays. When asked to read these scripts, I groaned... they were boring, pretentious and were irreverent [irrelevant?] to the world I existed in.
She goes on to describe a transformative experience of The Three Sisters and concludes:
I became and still am a lover of Checkov's musical language, breathing characters, and his dynamic ability to tell a remarkable story. Either Checkov or I grew up. I am assuming it was me.
Though I prefer the slower pacing of European cinema to the rushed pace of Hollywood, I guess I have not yet matured with respect to Checkov.

I am much happier at home right now and, blessedly, much happier with my life than the poor folks in the play.

Sorry, Mimi, I know you loves you some Checkov.

For Checkov lovers in New Mexico, there is a good production at the Vortex through May 30.

--the BB


Grandmère Mimi said...

Paul, I'm sorry you were disappointed, but you did right to leave. All you say is true, but I still love Checkov. Life has its Checkov moments, and his stories resonate. In your favor, he is somewhat out of favor with critics at the moment. :-)

Paul said...

Yes, Mimi, there are Checkovian periods in life.

I believe his plays are an acquired taste. Not everyone cares for Greek tragedy or Shakespeare whereas I adore both.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I love the Greeks and Shakespeare, too.

Paul said...

You have a healthy cultural appetite.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

You make me think of my childhood. The Cherry Garden the play is called in Swedish (isn't i Tjechov?). Some pupils at my school perfored it one morning - and it all reminded me of my home.

Only, our Cherry Garden was long gone... before I was born, even. But life remanined closed, closeted, no ways out.

The only thing that really counted was this Cherry Garden, which no one ever mentioned...

Paul said...

The Cherry Orchard was another of his plays.

I found at Wikipedia a comment by Virginia Woolf on one of Checkov's stories that seems apt:

"But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony."

'they went on talking' is the sense I had and though the conversation is revelatory of rich characters, I still did not find myself interested in them.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Virginia Woolf is quite right. Life often does not have emphatic conclusions. The lives of the characters go on after the play.

Paul said...