Friday, December 07, 2007

PLAY: "Chekhov's Chicks"

Ever since I dreamed of attending NYU's Gallatin program as a major in "The Philosophy and Psychology of Theater," the thought of theater's ability to really change one's perception and heal our ails -- if taken seriously -- has stuck with me, and consequently, is part of why I've stuck with it. That's why it was such a pleasure to attend Elizabeth Rosengren's Chekhov's Chicks, a play that mashes together several Chekhov plays and short stories in order to enlighten the audience about love and life. The production is quietly directed by Jewels Eubanks and sometimes (in that small, barely decorated Manhattan Theater Source space) comes across amateurishly, like a scene study class, but as a whole, it takes a delightfully active approach -- much like the "active love" of Ivanov -- until at last, after a full presentation of the short comic piece, The Bear, our hero is finally able to bear the pains in her heart.

The play begins by introducing us to the lesser known Anna Akimovna (Carolinne Messihi), a character from A Woman's Kingdom who suffers from loneliness and stress. Rather than sit around idly, she heads to a famous doctor -- Anton Chekhov (Chris Cotone) -- who quickly diagnoses the pain she feels in her heart: "I know that pain. There is nothing for it." Luckily, his muse, the actress Arkadina (Elizabeth Rosengren, who plays a kinder version of the Seagull matriarch) has another idea: what if she and her company perform some of the good doctor's plays, to see if those bold examples of life can't calm her aching heart.

Soon, we're watching the Three Sisters give the abject lesson that "people don't marry for love," but that "when you fall in love yourself, you realize nobody knows anything about it." A few moments later, Sasha (Taryn DeVito) is clarifying for Ivanov (Ramesh Ganeshram) that "The more you have to do for love, the better it is. I mean, the more you feel it." And in one of the more memorable scenes from Uncle Vanya, Yelena dreams of being that free-swimming mermaid, unfettered from dull marriage and able to love.

These excerpts are all sparsely directed and often have very little for them beyond the light of an artificial moon shining off the window, but they speak to the sort of love to be found crawling out of Chekhov's "comedies" (this joke is made more than a few times) and they do inspire a sort of hope in the hopelessness of fantasy love. But they lead the way for real resolution in The Bear, which is now imbued with enough context (like Homelife does for The Zoo Story) to make the presentation of what would otherwise simply be a lovesick farce into a really uplifting conclusion. More so, the audience is joined by the entire cast, and we can feel their excitement merging with that of the play -- in fact, Anna interrupts the performers several times with her own eagerness and hope, which makes the performance more thrilling.

Rosengren has pulled together a lot of Chekhov's better musings, and while these pieces often lose the tone of the plays (some of the actors are delivering surface readings only, with none of the subtext or real yearnings of these characters), this repurposing is smooth and emphatic in its own way. Then to end with a quoted example of my own, these chicks may occasionally be ugly ducklings, but they blossom at last into a beautiful swan.

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