Contemporary Chekhov

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If Kevin Kline doesn't get a big laugh in Ivanov (opening Nov. 20 at Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater), will Chekhov leap from the grave and punch him out? And what if the Sovremennik Theatre gets too many laughs with the production of The Cherry Orchard that it has brought from Moscow to the Martin Beck (in a limited run beginning Oct. 29). Will the playwright hiss them from the wings?

If Kevin Kline doesn't get a big laugh in Ivanov (opening Nov. 20 at Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater), will Chekhov leap from the grave and punch him out? And what if the Sovremennik Theatre gets too many laughs with the production of The Cherry Orchard that it has brought from Moscow to the Martin Beck (in a limited run beginning Oct. 29). Will the playwright hiss them from the wings?

Those questions aren't entirely facetious, because Russian people expect, and indeed enjoy, a bit of histrionics on and off their theatrical stages. During rehearsals for the first production of Ivanov in 1887, Chekhov himself had a bitter quarrel with the leading actor, attacking him for bringing too much doom and gloom to the role. At the play's Moscow premiere, fistfights broke out in the theatre, creating a scandal "without precedent in theatrical history."

Nobody, it seems, knew what to make of Ivanov, a country gentleman who runs his estate into the ground, falls into debt, betrays his dying wife by seducing the daughter of his major creditor, and spends most of the play wallowing in self-pity. Clearly, the fellow was a selfish cad, and the outraged Russian audience wanted his guts for garters. Chekhov, however, would have none of it. Despite Ivanov's contemptible behavior and general lack of spine, Chekhov drew him with nonjudgmental understanding, even compassion. "I didn't accuse anyone, I didn't acquit anyone," he defended his hero. "I wanted to do something original."

To David Hare, who wrote the new translation of Ivanov used in the Lincoln Center production, Chekhov's refusal to moralize about his deeply flawed characters is precisely what makes them so accessible to modern audiences. "The dominating theme of Ivanov is honesty," he says, and its conflict "is between a young doctor who thinks that honesty is to do with blurting out offensive truths, and the more sensitive central character who insists that no one can acquire honesty unless they also have self-knowledge."

When Ralph Fiennes played the role (in Hare's translation) last season, first at London's Almeida Theatre and then in Moscow, critics found a wealth of contemporary significance in the character. (One diagnosed Ivanov as "clinically depressed" and congratulated Chekhov, who also practiced medicine, for his progressive views on mental illness.) To Hare, however, it is crucial that Ivanov not be seen as indulging his psychological demons. The character, he says, is "actually horrified by the idea of depression and repelled to find himself its victim. Far from indulging that melancholy, Ivanov fights it."

If that interpretation goes over with Chekhov and Ivanov stirs no rumblings from beyond the grave, then maybe we'll get some action from The Cherry Orchard, fresh from Moscow in a new production by the Sovremennik Theatre, whose Broadway debut with Three Sisters and Into the Whirlwind won them a special Drama Desk Award last year.

No less than Ivanov, The Cherry Orchard also had Chekhov apoplectic during rehearsals at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904. "The only thing I can say is that Stanislavsky has massacred my play," the playwright complained in the fusillade of letters that he sent from Yalta. In winter confinement for his health at this "hot Siberia," he watched in dismay from afar as the production developed in a style too stagy, too bombastic, too flamboyant, too lugubrious and too sentimental for a play he had intended as "a comedy, even a farce."

It was bad enough the playwright couldn't stop Stanislavsky from turning his family of charming, scatterbrained country gentry into dour tragic figures. ("What's this in your telegram about the play being full of people crying?") After his death, the Bolsheviks twisted his flighty provincial landowners into caricatures of the despised ruling classes they had overthrown in the Revolution, while remnants of the old aristocracy idealized them as icons of their own vanished past. They were later dismissed altogether by the Soviets, who saw them as useless members of the obsolete bourgeoisie.

"The theatre is not a museum, it is a living thing," says Galina Volchek, a founding member of the Sovremennik and since 1972 its artistic director. New interpretations of Chekhov are inevitable, she says, in Russia and throughout the world. But if a classic drama is to maintain its relevance, a balance must be struck between the reality of the work in its own time and whatever fresh insights it might provide to a modern audience. "You don't have to put Hamlet in jeans to give him contemporary meaning," she says. "You just have to know today's psychology‹the temper, nerve, tremors, cataclysms of today." With its warm-hearted, openly affectionate attitude toward the irresponsible family that dithers away its patrimony, Volchek's interpretation is surprisingly close to Chekhov's own vision of a "gay and frivolous" production. It is also radically different from her earlier stagings of the play, including a celebrated 1978 production that cast the merchant Lopakhin in a very sinister light.

"The main accent of that production, which was pre-Perestroika, was that Lopakhin was part of the new class that was out to tear down beauty and destroy the intelligentsia," Volchek says. "Now, at the end of the century, I see that this is the reality of modern life, to tear down cherry orchards and put up skyscrapers. The process goes on, and it is nobody's fault. There is no bad man, no Lopakhin, who comes to destroy our world. We destroy it ourselves."

The sadness of that thought makes her laugh‹the Russian, the Chekhovian response to tragedy. When Chekhov asks us to laugh at Mme. Ranevskaya for interrupting her mourning for the cherry orchard to break into a dance, or at Trofimov, who can solve the problems of the world but can't find his own galoshes, it is not to mock them, but to appreciate the absurdity of the human comedy.

The Russian word "sovremennik" means "contemporary," and to Galina Volchek, the "essence of contemporary art is tragi-comedy." For that matter, the essence of contemporary life is tragi-comedy, which Chekhov, with his modern sense of irony, instinctively grasped and translated to the stage. As David Hare points out, when he refers to Ivanov's existential crisis as "half-farcical, half-serious," it was actually Chekhov's intention "to kill off once and for all the strain of self-indulgent melancholy, which he believed disfigured Russian literature."

Comedy, tragedy, whatever‹Chekhov would probably just call it the human comedy.

Why are we not surprised to hear that Kevin Kline is coming back to the stage in Ivanov? Because it's just the sort of daft career move we'd expect from this rogue star. Hollywood recently declared him a comic genius for his sweetly hysterical portrayal of an outed high-school teacher in the movie In & Out.

Prior to that popular success, he impressed serious cineastes at the Cannes Film Festival with his finely shaded performance of a philandering husband in The Ice Storm.

And now he's playing a guilt-ridden Russian Hamlet who neglects his dying wife to fool around with the girl next door. Although Hollywood might ponder the kind of planning that went into such a dizzy career, theatregoers will recognize it as the exuberant non-planning of a sublimely versatile actor gleefully grabbing at the best parts. Ever since he made his Broadway debut (in Three Sisters, among other showcase productions) with the 1975 graduating class of John Houseman's Acting Company, Kline has been racking them up: Hamlet, Richard III, Benedick in Much Ado, Bluntschli in Shaw's Arms and the Man, the swashbuckling Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, the oily matinee idol in On the Twentieth Century, and now‹a Russian malcontent with a bad case of nineteenth-century weltschmerz? Piece of cake.

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