Monday, February 2, 2009

Sweet Chekhov Mine; or, More Revolting Theatre from the A.R.T.

The recent A.R.T. production of Chekhov's The Seagull had one glorious moment - when the cast ripped into Guns n'Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" (video above). It's true the moment was gloriously stupid, but that's what made it awesome: the stupidity of the production - and, face it, the A.R.T. in general - was suddenly proud and free and bangin' its head, instead of hiding behind some postmodern mumbo-jumbo from the likes of Gideon Lester. No, here you suddenly felt the honest, adolescent imprint of director/auteur János Szász - one wild and crazy Hungarian guy who just can't get enough of 80's-hair-band American ROCK! JÁNOS SZÁSZ, WE SALUTE YOU!

I admit it: for a moment, I was in love. But the moment passed. Stupidity can be glorious only for a moment, then the moment's gone . . .

And I was stuck with the grim memory that Axl Rose was a moron, and so were the people behind this show.

I mean seriously. DUDES. Guns n'Roses??? Chekhov is crying out for "new forms" and you come up with a song from GUNS N'ROSES? A song older than the Harvard students listening to it? Seriously. Like not Franz Ferdinand or Arctic Monkeys or even the Strokes? Guns n'Roses? Dudes. Seriously.

Still, I guess it takes a while for pop culture to make its way to Hungary, director Szász's home (he basically works in Cambridge and Budapest), and we're lucky we didn't get Spinal Tap by mistake. And of course, other than that 22-year-old-single-from-a-hair-band thing, the show was like absolutely cutting edge in every way. I mean totally fresh, totally real. It was all up in your face, and like fuck tradition we are makin' this shit our own! There was like water on the floor, and rocker costumes, and like this dark cavernous space, and all this lighting from the side, and the actors were amplified and all alienated and shit and - what?

You saw this at the A.R.T. last time?

And the time before that? And the time before that and before that and -


Wait a minute - noooo, dude, you're like fuckin' with my head, right? I mean THIS IS THE A.R.T.! THEY CAN'T BE DOING THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!

Oh, yes they can. Let's play a little game, shall we? Let's call it "Name That Set"! I'll show you the set for an A.R.T. production, and you try to name the play it's attempting to evoke:

Quick! Is this the A.R.T. set for a) The Marriage of Figaro; b) The Merchant of Venice ; c) The Seagull or d) Marat/Sade?

Is this the A.R.T. set for a) Alcestis b) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum c) Romeo and Juliet or d) No Exit?

Is this the A.R.T. set for a) Julius Caesar b) Don Giovanni c) Waiting for Godot or d) Hairspray?

ANSWER: It doesn't matter what the play is. The set remains the same.

So how to explain the strange critical ritual that greets so many A.R.T. productions - you know, where the critic pretends that what she's seeing is shocking and new, instead of - well, what she saw at the A.R.T. last month? Hmmmm, what could be her motive there . . . wow . . . it's a toughie ain't it. Let's just say that maybe the professors at Harvard aren't the only ones trying to look hip. And in the end, isn't that what Bob Brustein's revolting theatre is boiling down to? (You can imagine that soon there will be evaluation forms handed out to the freshmen at the shows.) The incoming artistic director made her name with Hair and The Donkey Show (in which characters from Shakespeare lip-synched to pop songs). Last year the A.R.T. tried to cross Günter Grass with the Dresden Dolls, and set Racine to - yes, rock guitar. Now we've got Axl Rose starring in Chekhov. I think we all know where this going - actually, scratch that; we're already there. The future isn't now; it's yesterday.

So why don't I feel more nostalgic for this shit? Perhaps because it's not even good at what it's pretending to be. I'm sure there's a way to work rock and roll into Chekhov, for instance; you could make leading boy-man Konstantin resemble, I don't know, Lou Reed or Robert Fripp. But you can't make him Axl Rose; that's just embarrassing, and yanks the rug right out from under your own concept. And if you're going to attempt a "new form" for Chekhov, then you have to really do one, a consistent one; you can't keep contradicting yourself, or start throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks. Because the play posits a deep aesthetic question - "How can theatre achieve a new form?" - and rejects one possible, but pretentious, answer (from the Symbolists of Chekhov's own day), then provides a better answer via its own structure. Any new, successful "form" for the play must perforce meet this demanding, self-iterative standard.

But alas, Szász and the A.R.T. not only betray Chekhov's achievement, they unconsciously parody it. Because rock and roll is nothing if not pretentious (and Chekhov is not); true, rock is vulgarly pretentious, which makes people forgive its bombast. But bombast is precisely what Chekhov abhors (this is one reason why the A.R.T., which is always trying to make its Chekhov productions propaganda for Suprematism, or Symbolism, or some other -ism, gets the playwright so wrong). In a word, by centering his Seagull on Konstantin - in effect making the whole production a flashback before his suicide attempt - Szász reveals a complete and utter incomprehension of the play; he turns it into an over-the-top melodrama precisely like the kind he thinks he's decrying.

Or is he somehow actually aware of that fact, even if his audience isn't? It's hard to say. In this version, for instance, bad boy Konstantin is rebelling against his middlebrow actress mother, just like in the original - but they're both rockers (?), and she looks like an aging Axl Rose fan, too. So is the idea that they're both equally crass artistes, and that they both actually like the same thing? Maybe . . . but if so, we need a few more data points to fix that in perspective; even if briefly, during Nina's Patti-Smith-like performance, we sense something like Chekhov's bemused view of the Symbolists (an ironic stance which immediately evaporates). What we get the rest of the time is a rambling series of contrarian positions mixed and matched with traditional ones - characters flip back and forth between these tracks, seemingly at will. Thus Dr. Dorn, the supposedly alienated Don Juan, is neither sexy nor alienated, but shouty until suddenly sleazy; and Trigorin, the supposedly quiet, simple novelist, is here a coldly jealous brute (who actually fingers Nina's pussy onstage - I'm beginning to think we need a Tackiest Moment in Chekhov Award!), until he's suddenly a milquetoast when the text demands it. Nina is somehow half-mad and unstable, but also another blank, declamatory shouter, while Arkadina is an earthy rock mama until suddenly she has to be a flighty neurotic. I could go on and on.

And certainly this production does, what with endless splashing through puddles and tossing of baggage (both emotional and literal). The matinee I saw ran a stunning, soporific three hours and twenty minutes; by way of contrast, Trevor Nunn's recent production in New York was nearly an hour shorter, which still felt long. And let it be noted that once again, as he did with Desire Under the Elms, Szász has rewritten the last act. Not revised; not re-interpreted; rewritten. Not that anyone at Harvard knows or cares - or at least if they know, they're counting on their audience's ignorance to see them through. Just like they always have.

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