Chekhov in our Century: The F Word and the Tutu

Chekhov’s masterwork, The Seagull (1896), grapples with the desperate measures we have always taken for the sake of love and art.  The romantic and artistic conflicts are mainly among four characters:  Arkadina, a successful actress; Trigorin, a famous and successful writer and Arkadina’s lover; Nina, an aspiring and naïve actress, and Konstatin Treplev, an aspiring writer in love with Nina and desperate for his mother’s love and approval.  The play has survived for over 100 years and hardly a year goes by without some new adaptation. ”We need new forms” is Treplev’s embittered battle cry.

In today’s world of deconstruction, reconstruction, adaptation, explication, The Seagull has become irresistible fodder for new forms to suit our times, moral tastes, language, our expectations for answers.  Two such transformations are running concurrently in New York: the Pearl Theater Company’s adaptation by Aaron Posner, Stupid Fucking Bird and the Irish company, the Pan Pan Theatre Company’s, as they put it, “idiosyncratic response,” The Seagull and Other Birds.

The celebrated expletive abounds in every conceivable form for every conceivable feeling in this Posner’s “sort of” adaptation.  That expletive is the “now” word in contemporary parlance, an omni-grammatical presence used for delight, anger, surprise, disgust as noun, verb, adjective and adverb.  Mr. Posner’s adaptation is for the here and now audiences of today.  The audience is greeted with the title in large letters on a screen that stretches the wide width of the stage and then we are encouraged to participate in its ubiquity.  At the beginning of the play, the young Con (Posner’s adapted version of Konstantin, played with an unrelenting fierceness of purpose by Christopher Sears) stares at us and says:  “The play will begin when someone says: ‘start the fucking play’.”

In the Pearl’s vigorous production under director Davis McCallum, we are reminded of the prevalence of the word in the scenic design (marvelously created by Sandra Goldmark ) and in the dialogue where everyone uses it.  And despite a fantastically elaborate kitchen set revealed, and despite the elaborate business of making a smoothie or an alcoholic concoction, the famous four-letter word reigns supreme throughout, ending in the 2nd act as the act itself as Emma (Chekhov’s Arkadina) and Trig (Trigorin) (Erik Lochtefeld) do “it” on the table then on the sink.  With ingenious craft, Posner dives into the dark depths of Arkadina and Trigorin’s relationship in Chekhov and resurfaces with what contemporary audiences find satisfyingly honest, sex.

In the midst of all the words, there is an outstanding non-verbal, visual moment.   An exquisite chair dance to Alla Pugacheva (the Soviet Adele) famous “One Million Red Roses.”  Each actor moves with a chair in accordance with his/her character’s inner turmoil.  Dan Daily (superb as a Sorin/Dorn alcoholic) examines his beer bottle, and we know instantly what his love is all about, and the tragic-comic inability of humans to completely understand their feelings.

Mr. Posner has adapted many other works, and will be going on to adapt more Chekhov.  What is that attracts one to a classic to redefine it in terms of the contemporary?  Chekhov’s universal themes of unrequited love, of love that destroys, possessive love, an unfulfilled life perhaps.  Or our need to know.  By making clear in word the unspoken subtext, we are gratified that there are answers, but we have lost Chekhov’s subtle ambiguity.  When Emma (a rendition of Chekhov’s Arkadina, portrayed with the delightful cynicism of a self-centered, successful actress by Bianca Amato) speaks directly to the audience about her son’s continual failed attempts at getting her attention, she warns us not to judge.  There are many such moments when characters talk to the audience.  Mr. Posner, and not Chekhov, uses these digressions to engage the audience, to make us participate, more often intellectually rather than emotionally.

Undoubtedly a master of the adaptation, Mr. Posner certainly has his finger on the pulse of our Zeitgeist.  With his sheer verbal virtuosity he has decided to transform the genius of The Seagull into, you guessed it, another kind of bird, now simply, fucking stupid.

Unbounded imagination in its very physical and verbal expression is the defining feature of the Pan Pan Company’s transformation of Chekhov’s work into The Seagull and Other Birds.   Not only does contemporary language spur the production, but also improvised images that spring to mind as a response to The Seagull.  There is a gracefulness in the ballet tights the performers wear despite some very non-balletic body types, and there is a respectful wit even to the most far-fetched riffs or the “other birds” inspired by the spine of the production, The Seagull.  And of course the humor.  Why else where ballet tights and tutus if not to dance to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake?.  Another Russian, another bird. 

The set is an empty stage, its bare brick walls and wings exposed as well as the musician at her electric keyboard, also dressed.  As in Stupid Fucking Birds the audience is also asked to be engaged in the action, but in the Pan Pan company’s production, director Gavin Quinn sets the ball rolling by giving away a Rolex watch (one of the company’s sponsors) to someone in the audience and by showing awards the company has won.
We are made to feel comfortable with such zaniness; we are not pressed to comply.  Later audience members are asked to come on stage to become a part of the action, first as part of the ballet warm-up and then chosen by the performer portraying Masha.  From the lineup on stage, one is chosen to be her besotted husband.

Still, when Chekhov’s words (translated into English, of course) are spoken, the satirical is dropped and a serious delicacy is created.  A silence follows as the actor stares and waits.  We seemed moved by the original author’s poignant yet inchoate sense of an individual’s loneliness. Contemporary irony is set aside for the moment.

But we cannot exist without sardonic irony in today’s world.  The company flings us back into the 21st century with clever visual and improvised riffs based on images of birds other than the seagull – the magpie, the nuthatch, the oystercatcher.  Often these are outrageously funny as when the stuffed cat (aka pussy, in all its innuendos) is introduced along with a stuffed black bird perched on the cat’s back, not a seagull.  Then “Trigorin” and “Nina” do a rap version of the writer’s complaint  on his own success/talent.   The performers likewise shift back and forth, from actor to characters.  Andrew Bennett, is the lovesick Treplev, but he is also Dick and then himself and then Dick again.  His moment is in the final scene with “Nina” (the stunning dancer, Judith Roddy), when she glides over his body as he holds her.

There is a plethora of allusions (perhaps the “other birds” of the title), some homages to Irish writers James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, inspired by a scene or a word from The Seagull.  As part of the stream of consciousness the allusions do not always explain but rather spring from an idea as when Gina Moxley, to show Arkadina’s acting skill, does her variations on the word “yes,” and we are reminded of Molly Bloom’s final words in Ulysses.

Some moments have only oblique references to The Seagull as when the company performs the five-minute version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One may at times be lost or mystified by this ornithological ride.  Still the impulse to respond to Chekhov and to expand our understanding of his world by referencing images necessitates that we shift with astronomical speed from image to image via all our modes of communication, and is in the end, genuine admiration for Chekhov.

Both productions are beholden to The Seagull’s characters, themes of art, love, the writer’s life, longing for happiness and success and humor. The Pearl’s production plunges headlong by verbally attempting to clarify by modernizing communication among the characters and revealing hidden motives whereas Pan Pan’s takes us on a flight of brilliant images, flitting here and there among contemporary modes of communication, creating a new form of the original play.  Both satisfy in different ways an intense desire to embrace Chekhov and make him ours.

Comic Adaptation
Stupid Fucking Bird ☆☆☆
Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Seagull
The Pearl Theatre Company
Director: Davis McCallum
Cast includes: Bianca Amato, Dan Daily, Erik Lochtefeld, Marianna McClellan, Joey Parsons, Joe Paulik, Christopher Sears
Dates:  15 March – 8 May, 2016

The Seagull and Other Birds ☆☆☆☆
Inspired by Anton Chekhov
Pan Pan Theatre Company
Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement
Director: Gavin Quinn
Cast: Andrew Bennett, Una McKevitt, Gina Moxley, Daniel Reardon, Judith Roddy, Dick Walsh
Dates:  March 23 – April 2, 2016