Sheib adds grunge to Chekhov

Jay Scheib in a 2011 MIT media shot. (Photo by Naomi White.)

Jay Scheib in a 2011 MIT publicity shot. (Photo by Naomi White.)

Having seen the remake of Checkhov’s Platonov by director Jay Scheib yesterday at the Kitchen, I now have an understanding of why Chekhov never finished the play: he was waiting for hand-held cameras and electrical guitars.

Platanov (also called Fatherless in English, although Chekhov never titled it) was an early theatrical attempt by Anton Chekhov that went nowhere. Chekhov wrote the piece (his first full-length play) to be produced at Moscow’s foremost theater, the Maly, in 1878, creating the major female role (Anna) specifically for Maria Yermolova, who refused the part, evidently thereby ending Chekhov’s interest in the matter. (Chekhov was quite perceptive in recognizing Yermolova’s talent and potential. Years later Stanislavisky himself said she was the greatest actress he had ever watched. Yermolova was able to navigate the treacherous politics of Russia during her half century of acting, even becoming a symbol of the Revolution early on.) Chekhov’s sprawling text has been taken up several times, once in a relatively faithful adaptation a century after its composition by the Maly in Moscow in 1997. Before that (in 1984) English playwright  Michael Frayn adapted the test for London’s National Theatre (calling the play Wild Honey). That performance put Ian McKellen in the title role and won several Olivier Awards. McKellen repeated the role in the New York run of the play in 1986 and also reprised the role for the BBC radio (actually BBC7) in 2010, the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. Other productions have been made, cutting down the text (which provides for some 20 characters which lasts over 4 hours and is still “unfinished”) and diverging considerably

Those remakes, however, lacked what Scheib evidently saw a glaring need: technological pizzazz. This he was able to provide in a production that was spawned at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego for the 2013 Without Walls Festival. This week it came to the Kitchen, a city-supported experimental theatrical, dance and performance space in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Scheib has developed a proficiency for pairing technology with traditional performance arts, having added simulcasts to performances at the Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre. He uses this skill possibly because it is second nature for him (he is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and technology must be in his blood) or possibly because he finds Old Art to be too confining for his vision. I have to believe that he genuinely feels the latter, because he himself was on-stage holding one of the hand-held cameras he introduced into Chekhov’s work.

But first let’s dispense with Chekhov altogether, because the play is billed as “Jay Scheib: Platanov, or The Disinherited,” and only notes inside the playbill (after the title page) acknowledge some indebtedness to the “fragment” by Chekhov. Chekhov might himself be somewhat relieved that the Kitchen does not attach this production to his reputation, because its occasional flashes of Chekhov’s sensibilities are fleeting and perhaps even reflected. (I had the strong impression throughout that Scheib was more familiar with Andre Gregory’s take on Chekhov than on Chekhov himself. But once again, I doubt that Gregory would like this production tied to his influence, although some of the charming ticks of Vanya on 42nd Street, can be seen in the performances, although overdone with considerably less subtlety.)  There are numerous ways to present Chekhov’s nuanced, tragic comedies, but generally there is an emphasis (even when done broadly) on nuance. Scheib has instead gone for frenetic, in many places slapstick.

Chekhov’s untitled play is not The Cherry Orchard, although it does involve the bankruptcy of a landed estate. It is decidedly not Three Sisters, because instead of one off-stage shot that the audience learns is the fatal outcome of a duel, this play has enough on-stage rifle and pistol action (not to mention a knifing and another unknown slaying) to satisfy audiences of Victorian melodrama. But Scheib has rendered the play in such a way that if you had never heard of Chekhov, you would wonder why anyone would have bothered producing him.

It's a bloody play. Laine Rettmer, Mikéah Ernst Jennings and Jon Morris (back to camera). From MIT's Music and Theater New and Events Page.

It’s a bloody comedy. Laine Rettmer, Mikéah Ernst Jennings and Jon Morris (back to camera). From MIT’s Music and Theater New and Events Page.

The play centers on Platanov (played by Mikéah Ernst Jennings, a Kitchen regular), a 35 year-old schoolteacher who, for reasons that are assumed to be part of the necessary audience suspension of disbelief, is a highly successful lothario, so good at his seductions that he can practice them in front of the eyes of his trusting and beautiful young wife Sasha (played by Ayesha Ngaupah, the sole member of the cast not driven to over-the-top melodrama). Plus, Platonov is a lout. He fondles and licks the help (variously referred to a the “maid” and the “caterer,” Jacob, played by Laine Rettmer). The newly-married Platonov couple are the late arrivals at a typical Russian vodka-fest being thrown by Anna Voynitsev (Sandra Choudhury), who is about to be dispossessed from her estate owing to the debts of her late husband, and her step-son Sergey (played by Jon Morris), an exuberant, loud, cowed husband of Sonya (Virginia Newcomb), who is, like everyone else except the caterer, in love with Platonov, although she had not seen him for some time and was unaware he was married. (How this happened is not readily apparent because it seems the other Voynitsev’s are quite familiar with Platonov, and indeed mother Anna goes to great lengths to bed him.) The matron Anna is pursued by Porfiry, a wealthy businessman (played by Tony Torn), who admits in a sauna scene (!) that he is “unlucky in love” but quite successful in business. He hopes to use his wealth to buy Anna. He has already offered to buy the estate at auction, so that the Voynitsevs would not have to deal with the bank. Porfiry tells Anna that, as her husband, he will make her happy, acceding to her every wish, even renouncing conjugal rights, just to be near her. His suit becomes more ardent as vodka is liberally downed, until she rejects him. Before the ultimate ending a farce of sort takes place in which Anna tries to bed Platonov (their ardor at least once interrupted by the devoted wife, who has, incidentally, just learned she is pregnant, having on-screen (see below) performed an instant pregnancy test with a kit), who is more interested in bedding Sonya, who after first announcing her disgust with him, wants to ditch Sergey so decides to run away with Platonov, who agrees after sleeping with her, but then has second thoughts. Sergey comes to challenge Platonov to a duel, and, even though Platonov is in no shape for the encounter (having been plied with more vodka by Anna who came to find out why he did not fulfill their rendezvous and because he was stabbed int he abdomen by a somewhat loopy, crazed (?), criminal (?), backwoodsman, played in this version by a woman), Sergey takes dead aim at him, shooting five times and missing. The backwoodsman eventually is killed (or not, it gets confused at the end) and Porfiry decides he is not going to buy the estate, allowing the caterer (!) to buy it at auction. But that isn’t even the surprising ending.

I guarantee that the above description does not even approximately convey what a mess the plot is in this production. I did not mention the village doctor who romps pants dropped with Sergey in an early frenetic scene (the doctor is another role given to an actress by Scheib, Rosalie Lowe, who also plays the backwoodsman), who appears to be after Sasha (as is the backwoodsman herself), but eventually after much additional vodka is persuaded to report to a call (on her beeper) to perform surgery on a shopkeeper. I also omit the circumstances of how the backwoodsman was killed (or not) because, frankly I couldn’t follow it.

Pratfalls and slapsticks, although I missed the drum major in this photo. From HowlRound's Cinema Commons,

Pratfalls and slapsticks, although I missed the drum major seen in this photo. Perhaps I was too busy reading the subtitles. From HowlRound’s Cinema Commons,

Of course plot details of an unfinished 4+ hour play condensed into a mere 2 hours (without intermission) have to be dropped or summarily dealt with. But Scheib finds at least one time saver: staging. The stage is made up of an outdoor scene, and several indoor scenes, which the audience cannot see directly. Instead there are two cameramen, one of them Scheib, who not only follow the actors to the hidden scenes, but onto the stage. The cameramen (and woman, Rettmer also holds a camera occasionally) put the cameras directly in the faces of the actors, get down on the ground to provide upshots and down shots (many characters are on the ground; lots of vodka has been consumed after all), scan in detail the body of a showering Sasha (front and back), give a close-up of the doctor’s bare behind after she drops her pants, get between characters, providing reaction shots, simulating craning shots, and in general allowing the live audience to watch what is happening on an overhead screen—with subtitles, in English, just like at the Met, I guess. It was like being present for the taping of a two-camera sit-com, except with subtitles.

In fairness to Scheib (but why?), the proceedings were being simulcast so cameras were arguably necessary (the argument is over whether it was necessary to simulcast it at all). And if it must be simulcast, we have to have close-ups and reaction shots just as on TV, because, who wants to see a play? Different performances of this event are being shown at the AMC Empire (in Times Square), the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. Last night’s performance was simulcast on HowlRound TV Webcast. (Had I known I could have stayed home and drunk vodka with the characters. You get a craving about a half-hour into it.) If you would like to verify anything I have said here, you can actually see future performances streaming on the very computer you read this on January 17 and 24 at

On last thing. There is also music. It’s mostly grunge, because evidently that’s the genre that Chekhov puts Scheib in mind of. If you are going to turn a play into a simulcast, with close-ups and reaction shots, you might as well provide a soundtrack. (There’s another difference from a sit-com. But then again many sit-coms have laugh-tracks.) Some of the grunge is exceptionally loud. Even louder than the numerous rifle and pistol shots. And a bit louder than some of the pratfalls. But Scheib doesn’t leave the grunge as subtle background. (Scheib left nothing to subtlety in any respect.) He gives you his take at the very beginning when an up-to-date Laine Rettmer tells all these same party-goers, this time in contemporary clothes, about her past. This is done in one of the back rooms so we see this mostly on screen, in close-ups by Scheib himself that are rather too close. This modern prologue tells the story of a girl who was cool enough to see Kurt Cobain and Nirvana before they were known (in Nebraska with 10 in the audience) and thus was inspired enough to go for the gusto and become a webzine/90s dot com literary success (the financing and actual business are somewhat sketchy). At her height she had a perfect woman life partner with whom she had a surrogate child (her brother the donor), all the while drinking (just like Chekhov’s characters!) She hit rock bottom, having lost her business, lover and child. But after attempting suicide, she changed core. Now she is sober and reviews art for a “real” newspaper. (In a play filled with intentional anachronisms, the newspaper reference was a superannuated device, which I happen to believe was an intention choice for in-you-face irony, given the other choices made in this production.) But she retained a string that Cobain ripped from his guitar in that very first Nebraska performance. That sting is used once more as a plot device, to bring about the “amusingly wry” ending.

So you see Scheib views the whole thing as a commentary on the excesses of the 90s. (1990s, that is.) And maybe earlier too. (Porfiry, after all, spends some time doing lines of cocaine after his rejection.) So you really can’t blame Chekhov for this.  How, after all, could Chekhov have foreseen the aesthetics of grunge? Or specifically the metaphor of Kurt Cobain? He was too busy with theatre. Fortunately, Scheib has broken through those conventions to give us a fast-paced, multimedia experience for our times, which, I guess, we deserve. For some reason.

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