DramaWatch: Chekhov, Drammys

Tragic? Comic? Something else? A grand gathering looks at Chekhov in the 21st century. Plus: It's Drammy Awards time Monday at The Armory.

For eons, the theatrical arts, apparently lacking a good graphic designer, have been identified by the twinned masks of comedy and tragedy, the facial features mirthfully upturned in one, curdled in anguish in the other. But what’s the mask for the great plays of Anton Chekhov? What would be the simply rendered, universally recognized expressions for the simultaneously absurd and poignant, for naive hopes unfulfilled, for chronic indecision, for the silly or mundane moments of daily life, for madcap despair, for the noble decayed into the buffoonish, for the demise of an era and a way of life…?

Perhaps no other playwright save Shakespeare has been so enduringly intriguing, rewarding and confounding to audiences across the world as Chekhov, whose four major plays are considered masterpieces by innumerable people who cannot much agree on their nature or meaning. There’s been conflict right from the start, with the playwright insisting his works were comedies, while the director Konstantin Stanislavski brought them great renown as doleful dramas.

Osip Braz, “Portrait of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov,” 1898, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons

And that was in Russia around the turn of the 20th century. What’s to be made of these plays in the here and now?

That’s where Chekhov in the 21st Century: a Symposium comes in.

Presented by Lewis & Clark College in collaboration with the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, the symposium will be presented June 27-30 in the college’s Fir Acres Theatre. Parts of it will be somewhat academic in nature, but it’s all free and open to the public, and its main events — readings of four Chekhov plays translated by LC professor Stepan Simek and a keynote address by Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director emerita Libby Appel — should be worthwhile for anyone with a passing interest in theater.

All told, it’s six readings — four of them in the Saturday, June 30 “Whole Day Chekh-O-Rama”  — plus three panel discussions, two lecture-presentations and one workshop. “A giant, fantastic leap over a cliff,” is the playful description of Rebecca Lingafelter, a PETE principal and LC faculty member who helped organize the event. “We’re both academics as well as artists, so it felt really exciting to take the conversation that PETE and Stepan have been having for the past few years and extend that into the community.” PETE and Simek collaborated on a version of The Three Sisters in 2014 and early this year staged an almost antic Uncle Vanya.

“It all started with The Three Sisters,” Simek says, sitting in a Northeast Portland cafe, vaping discreetly between sips of coffee and bursts of conversation. “I did the translation because I wasn’t happy with all the others.” Sarah Ruhl’s translation in particular he recalls as “so over-romanticized that it drove me crazy.”

The issue, for him, isn’t about something as broad as category, whether the plays rightly are comedies or dramas, but about something more essential: rhythm and tone, attitude and energy.

“There’s always been something about Anglo-American interpretations; this soulful, slow, tragic vision of these plays,” says Simek, a native of Prague. “And I’m not saying that they’re not soulful and tragic, but that sense of the characters as these incredibly sad Russians, as people of another time, all this stuff about boredom and ennui…it’s like an orientalism about the Russian soul.

“My understanding of Chekhov — and if you see how productions are treated in Russia, it is so fast, so aggressive — is that what those plays are about is those characters finding themselves glued to their existence. And they are trying desperately to unglue themselves. They find themselves on an ice floe, melting under their feet, and they are dancing as fast as they can to keep from noticing that.

Jacob Coleman as Vanya has been driven to distraction by Yelena in PETE’s 2018 “Uncle Vanya.” Photo: Owen Carey

“I’m entirely aware that there have been plenty of really good productions and translations of Chekhov,” he clarifies. But many more he feels are “too complex, a little stilted, not entirely alive…If you read the plays in Russian, Chekhov’s language is unbelievably simple. There’s a directness that I think is missing in most translations.”

One problem, he surmises, is that English translations usually have been done either by academics steeped in the Russian language or by theater directors and playwrights who adapt from literal translations. He thinks he can bring both strengths together.

He’s also not working alone. With the support of a Creative Heights grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, Simek and PETE are experimenting with what they call “collaborative translation.” Simek translates from Russian to English, but creates a script with various alternatives marked throughout — suggested additions or word-choice alterations, then workshops these with PETE’s actors and directors.

“What we’re really trying to discover is not just what the words are saying but whether they jell with the action, whether they roll off the tongue, whether we’re being direct and not veering off into poetic calisthenics.”

Simek’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard is at this stage, hence it will get a reading to kick off the symposium, then another reading as part of the Chekh-O-Rama (or Antonpalooza, as Simek likes to call it).

With much reading to be done, a host of actors will be involved, including such top Portland talents as Maureen Porter, Michael O’Connell, Victor Mack, Isaac Lamb and Ben Newman, and of course PETE co-founders such as Jacob Coleman (in the choice roles of Uncle Vanya and the Cherry Orchard pursuer Lopakhin) and Amber Whitehall.

“We are very excited about it,” Simek says. “There’s a part of me that thinks this is a great thing we are doing for the world. These are wonderful plays; they posit this mirror to the fight we have with life.

“But at the same time,” he adds, sounding a bit like a Chekhov character himself, “I worry that this is just a little vanity project of mine.”

 

Drammy Awards

A few years ago, the Drammy Awards committee, which doles out statuettes of recognition to some of the most impressive theatrical work in Portland, began releasing a list of finalists for the awards in advance of the ceremony. That was a switch from the longstanding practice of giving no hints before the show, and simply announcing a varying number of “outstanding” recipients, rather than a single “winner.” It’s been a controversial change.

I was a member of the committee at the time that change was enacted and argued vigorously in its favor. So, if it’s an approach you detest, feel free to blame me (as I’ll not out any other committee members with regard to their votes).

Wrick Jones (left) as Memphis, Kenneth Dembo as Wolf, Cycerli Ash as Risa in PassinArt’s “Two Trains Running.” Photo: Jerry Foster

But I look at this year’s list of nominees from a greater distance — having taken most of this past season off from regular theatergoing — and find I appreciate the approach in a different way: It gives me a sense of what I’ve missed.

Among the shows to receive multiple nominations are some I particularly regret not having seen, such as PassinArt’s production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, and the Mark LaPierre/Eric Nordin musical John Hughes High from Staged! And how on earth did I not get my butt out to see Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful (one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, when OSF presented it a few seasons ago) in a Profile Theatre production that included best-supporting-actor level work from Duffy Epstein?
Oh well.

The awards ceremony will be at 7 p.m. Monday at Portland Center Stage, the Gerding Theatre, the Armory, or whatever else you want to call that joint — an interesting venue, considering that PCS and Artists Rep, the two largest local companies, withdrew their productions from Drammy consideration a year or so ago. Portland writer Claire Willett will host the presentation, including running a game of “Drammy bingo” and giving out prizes courtesy of Artslandia.

The heart of the evening, though, is the party aspect, and the PCS bar will facilitate much of that, staying open after the ceremony until 11 p.m., with a special Drammy cocktail, plus snacks provided by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance.

 

Best line I read this week

From the book Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun:
“In 2012, the second ex-wife of conservative presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said that he’d asked her for an open marriage after revealing an affair. When he was questioned about this in a debate, he responded as though auditioning for the Broadway company of a play called How Dare You, Sir?

 

Opening

Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, I was a big fan of the musician Suzanne Vega, who brought an updated incisiveness and darker psychology to the folky-confessional conventions of the pop singer-songwriter tradition, and as her career progressed incorporated intriguing sonic innovations as well. It’s been many years since I’ve listened to her work, so I’m not recalling quite what her songs have to do with costumes, cocktails, aerialists and so forth, but that’s how the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven is celebrating her in Beauty & Crime: a Night Carnival for Suzanne Vega. Among the performance, though, is a set of “micro-plays” by a troupe called Speculative Drama. And the singer Myrrh Larsen also provides reason for high expectations.

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The Institute for Contemporary Performance, created by members of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble in association with CoHo Productions, lets loose this year’s cohort of students/actors on the public. Very Poorly Indeed is not a performance evaluation, it’s the name of the devised piece about the exigencies of survival, somehow drawing on fairy tales, doppelgangers and the Donner Party.

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There can be something admirable about theater that makes its audience work a bit to get the most out of it, but The Neverending Cycle takes that idea to extremes. The Working Theatre Collective (an apt name for this project in particular) presents its 10th annual bike play — that is, a play that’s both performed and viewed while on bicycles. In motion, no less. And it’s a musical, to boot, about “a band of scrappy die-hards” trying to save a Portland in which the cycle has all but disappeared. Dystopia on wheels!
Meet at Peninsula Park, 700 N. Rosa Parks Way, by 6:30 p.m. on show days (June 21-22, 24, and 28-30); show begins at 7 p.m.

 

Closing

The power goes out on The Light in the Piazza after one more weekend of Mocks Crest Opera’s production of the gorgeous Craig Lucas/Adam Guettel musical. To my mind, a seriously miscast/misinterpreted central role here undercuts what’s otherwise an expertly realized and affecting version.

A national touring production of Les Miserables has a few more evenings at the Keller Auditorium, if you like that sort of thing.

And Twilight Theater winds up its Shakespeare-themed detective-mystery/comedy The Maltese Bodkin.

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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