KPBS AIRDATE: May 17, 1995
Actor-writer-director-doctor Jonathan Miller, when he was in San Diego a few years ago, talked about how Shakespeare productions are so different in England, because there, Shakespeare is bred in the bone. It’s the same with Chekhov and the Russians.
This week, for an all too brief run, San Diegans can see Chekhov done by true Chekhovians, the Russian people who understand him best. Our visitors, guests of Blackfriars Theatre and the SDSU Drama Department, are 26 members of the acclaimed Maxim Gorky Drama Theatre of Vladivostok, which happens to be San Diego’s sister city in Far Eastern Russia.
Their offering is “Ivanov,” the first full-length play written by the master, an 1887 piece that foreshadows the themes and characters to come.
Chekhov always considered his plays to be comedies, but most productions are rather plodding, often dreary affairs, drowning in pathos and angst. But the Gorky production is filled with comic touches and full of color and life. Chekhov would be pleased, and so will lucky San Diego audiences.
The technical aspects of the production are flawless. Stark but evocative ceiling-high white birches, wonderfully lit, stand majestically on the stage, while a huge painted icon of Jesus looks down. Ironic, that, since the main character has married a Jewish woman.
Anna gave up her dowry and her family for Ivanov; now she is dying of tuberculosis, but, penniless and disillusioned, he has grown to loathe her, and will do nothing to help save her life. Every night he slips away to visit his young lover, Sasha, who seems to have potential for a much larger dowry.
The performances are terrific, especially Alexander Slavsky as the bent and broken title character, and the two women, Svetlana Salakhutdinova who makes a lovely and elegant Anna, and Olga Nalitova as a very lively and beautifully bedecked Sasha.
There’s just one little technicality that bears mentioning. The play is performed in Russian. Free audio headsets are provided, with live, simultaneous translation. That works fine, but the little radios don’t, and I battled static throughout the performance. After awhile, though, if there isn’t too much noise in the line, you feel like you’re understanding every insightful Chekhovian word.
Now, some theatrical legacies are global, and some are very local. Chekhov left the world a canon of little stories that chronicle a big country in its time of change and turmoil.
Los Angeles actor/writer Mark Harelik describes a much smaller legacy, what a father leaves to a son. “The Legacy,” the renamed second chapter in Harelik’s autobiographical trilogy, concerns the further adventures of the only Jewish family in a tiny West Texas town: Harelik’s father, a proud and stubborn man; his mother, who’s dying of cancer; and the young 12-year old, budding Bar Mitzvah boy. There’s also a visiting aunt, a strong proponent of Christian Science.
Originally presumptuously titled “What the Jews Believe,” the current revision is happily abbreviated, more focused, and less skewed, though still leaning toward Christian Science as potentially more helpful than Judaism in facing impending death. And the kid gets a bit annoying, with his interminable knock-knock jokes and wise-cracks.
But the performances are topnotch, with Kim Bennet deftly portraying a confused but complex father, and Melinda Deane a frail and desperate mother. Sally Stockton’s rigid spinster-aunt is good, though there are many unanswered questions about this character. Jack Banning has a tough challenge as the Rabbi, a powerless leader, but better than the wimp rabbinical student who preceded him in the first version. Willie Bensussen is almost believable as young Nathan, but he’s trying too hard to be funny. His straight-talks to the audience are much more effective.
The play, and Randal Myler’s direction, lean toward the sentimental and melodramatic, especially at the end. But there are real issues of family and faith here, and that’s a valuable legacy in itself.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.