Chekhov

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?

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DramaWatch Weekly: Pop-up City

It's a week for short runs, from Chekhov to Twilight in L.A. – plus full-run shows on Patsy Cline, the Irish Troubles, and a sex crime coverup

Pop-up restaurants. Pop-up bars. Pop-up nightclubs, galleries, boutiques, publishing houses, concerts. We’re living in a pop-up world, so why not pop-up theater?

The traditional method of producing is to start a theater company, announce a season, and run a half-dozen shows for several weeks at a time. That still dominates, especially in the nonprofit theater world.

But more and more, quick-hit shows are spicing up the scene. You might not see reviews of them very often, because they’re in and out, here and gone. But a growing number of  producers and performers are taking advantage of short-run opportunities, and it takes a little scrambling to keep up.

What is the Fertile Ground Festival but a massive series of pop-ups? What about a company like Boom Arts, which exists to bring in a steady stream of political or experimental shows from around the world for very brief runs? What about the several play-reading series in town? And it’s not just small lean groups popping up and down. The two biggest theater companies in town, Portland Center Stage at The Armory and Artists Repertory Theatre, are playing the short-run, special-event game, too.

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A lifeline in troubled times

An energetic "Three Sisters" at Northwest Classical and a "Lifeboat" from disaster at Corrib ride the rough waters of a world out of tune

It’s a clumsy thing, this Three Sisters, chafing and halting and bumping into itself, tripping over its own feet, taking pratfalls, landing on all the discordant notes. And that’s a good thing.

Anton Chekhov’s great play, as it’s being performed in the tight little corners of the Shoe Box Theater by Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative, is all about the clumsiness of the human soul, the way things don’t connect, the abruptness and disconsolation of yearning and desire, the matter of enduring even when life seems unendurable, the way that people seem compelled to snatch unhappiness from happiness’s jaw. Like life itself it’s sometimes funny and sometimes foolish and sometimes heartbreaking, and to get inside such essential truths it takes on a bumptious, jangling rhythm, like a Bartok or Stravinsky or Ornette Coleman score. Things don’t fit – or they do, but not the way you expect – and that’s the glory of it all.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

This production is Patrick Walsh’s baby — he directs and co-produces and adapted Chekhov’s script — and it’s something of a triumph. Chekhov and his great director Stanislavski used to argue about the nature of his plays. They’re comedies, Chekhov insisted. They’re tragedies, Stanislavski replied. Walsh’s production reveals Three Sisters as something beyond both: funny and tragic and existential to its core; a play beyond summation, an immersion in the chaos of life, a place where love is everything and everything isn’t enough.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Double Chekhov, Ghost Hunters

It's January. Time to shake off that holidays hangover and get on with the shows.

Hello. The holidays are over and now plays can be about anything again. Next week brings Fertile Ground, brimming with homegrown theater offerings of every conceivable topic and timbre. There’ll be almost too much to mention then, so this week by comparison is short to summarize.

For those who can’t wait ’til next week, a couple of plays are opening early that you can Chekhov your list.* Northwest Classical Theatre brings Patrick Walsh’s adaptation of The Three Sisters to its old stomping grounds the Shoebox (with a familiar face from last season’s Playhouse Creatures gracing the cast). I, for one, miss the days when NWCT used to hang their collection of velvet cloaks in the Shoebox’s breezeway. Glad they’re back.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in Northwest Classical Theatre Collaboration’s “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble presents Štĕpán Šimek‘s “visceral, in-your-face” take on Uncle Vanya at Reed College. Expect surprises. (Though in the context of Chekhov, what does that mean? A gun not firing? Who knows?)

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