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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

One office, five finales, and life outside the window

Paris Studio’s Chekhov improvisations
27 April, 2010 - 00:00

The political doctrine made Henri Barbusse the best French author and Lu Xun the best Chinese one for the Soviet public. In 2010, this doctrine did not make the 150th anniversary of the great Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov a big cultural event. Nevertheless, in March 2010, rather than January [Chekhov was born January 29, 1860], denied financial support on all official levels, talented people who held dear the memory of this brilliant dramatist honored it in an inventive, humorously sentimental, and yet philosophically comprehensive manner.

The Paris Studio and the theatrical enterprise Vyshnevy sad (Cherry Orchard) staged this Chekhov’s play that turned out to be graphic evidence of the classic’s presence in current realities. Larysa Paris was the stage director, costume and production designer, sound and video engineer (together with S. Vysotsky), and acted as Ranevskaya [known as Mme. Ranevsky in some of the English versions of this play. — Ed.]. Previously she had successfully staged absurdists’ plays in three Kyiv theaters and then used this expe­rien­ce — at times quite unexpectedly — to spot elements of comedy in Chekhov’s dramas which the author insisted on calling comedies, something critics failed to comprehend.

Imagine all male characters sporting Chekhov beards, some even wearing his pince-nez, with the ladies and maidens clad in lace dresses, and Dunyasha (S. Shtanko) wearing the kokoshnik headdress and sarafan dress. The stage director’s concept reveals itself quickly and appears well-motivated. The victorious onslaught of boorishness against clearly defenseless intellect picks up speed, accompanied by video effects, like a Toyota X-Runner (including the gas pedal recalls). The screen displays 1917 Russian revolution documentary scenes merging into newsreels with brainwashed athletes performing feats [on Red Square in Moscow] — what’s next? Cut to Maidan would seem logical, but not in this case.

The director has a keen sense of measure as the audience’s attention is brought back to the stage. The cast is allowed to improvise at will, winning the audience with perfect dramatic identification, thrilling veteran theatergoers with clear intonations and sudden assessments. The actors pause every time the audience bursts out laughing, content to have the best confirmation of their professional skill.

For me, this joy of shared dedication, feeling happy about a fellow actor’s success, and a successful script are what I call the drama group’s success. In this case professional actors from five Kyiv drama companies behaved like rookies on stage.

I remember the Suziria Studio 23 years ago, when it was Kyiv’s first drama company staging plays on a contractual basis, when the administration of Soviet state-run companies forbade their actors to play on any other stage. Today our actors are free; the Soviet theater’s serfdom is legally prohibited. Increasingly often we see an amateurish approach on stage as a kind of preventive treatment for (excessive) professionalism.

I mean the five finales of the play that have nothing to do whatsoever with the original text or the stage director’s scenario. All characters gather in the abandoned, dilapidated mansion tended only by the old footman, Fiers (V. Kuz­netsov). They act as though asking forgiveness for everything done previously during the play. They move, look, and gesture as though repeating Please, forgive me!, mournfully and silently communicating this message to each one — and then they actually thank each other for a masterful performance by joining into a fiery dance, shedding their alter egos, lining up, apparently to take a bow, but then joining in the old Russian underworld song “Your Curly Forelock I Adore…” After that they form a cozy little crowd blowing good-bye kisses to the audience.

The first act, filled with subtle humor and guffaws, was followed by the second one — tragic, even tearfully so, now and then. But the third act, appa­rently meant as the jubilee-marking one, produced five finales of Chekhov’s play, reaffirming our lasting gratitude to this brilliant dramatist with his unswerving dedication to profession and creative talent.

The habitual stage-director-cha­l­lenging love triangles of Ranevskaya-Gayev (S. Petko)-Lopakhin (Yu. Yatsenko), Trofimov (V. Polikarpov)-Varya (K. Sinialnik)-Lopakhin, Varya-Anya (A. Sobolevska)-Ranevskaya in this case reach a crescendo, so much so it is sometimes difficult to figure out who loves who. Simeonov-Pishchik (A. Kochubei) and Yasha appeared to be completely lonely, but perhaps this was the project’s idea.

Doubtlessly, this is a very unusual interpretation of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, the cast featuring young as well as mature, acknowledged actors. Every personification rates an in-depth analysis, yet this newspaper format allows me to pass this judgment: The company did a great, spectacular job!

The play was performed office ­pre­mi­ses, at 4 Harmatna St. The fluorescent lamps were covered with cloth filters, with sections of the landowner’s estate done using color banners, along with wicker furnishings and a wall-size window across the stage, actually a video screen with constantly changing images, some relating to what is happening on stage, others totally irrelevant, often superimposing each other. Likewise, ideas, people, sounds, structures, colors emerge seemingly in conflict, but actually harmonious, being focused on one point where the courses of all life are coordinated. There is no way to voice the meaning of all this. What makes you happy is knowing that this does exist.

I ask: “What is to be done?” Chekhov replies: “You have to live.”

By Oleksii KUZHELNY, People’s Artist of Ukraine