The Boston Phoenix December 7 - 14, 2000

[Dance Reviews]

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Love letters

Robert Brustein corresponds with Chekhov

by Scott T. Cummings

Shakespeare and Chekhov are two of the most beloved playwrights in the Western world. Shakespeare wrote some three dozen plays, enough to keep a repertory company busy for decades. But when Chekhov died of tuberculosis, at age 44, he had written hundreds of stories but only five mature full-length plays.

That's not enough to satisfy somebody like Robert Brustein, who has spent 20 years making the American Repertory Theatre a bastion of modern drama. With last season's production of Ivanov, ART exhausted the Chekhov supply. What's an artistic director to do? "There's no question we're always looking for another Chekhov play," Brustein admits, "and because there are so few of them, one's greatest ambition is to provide that additional Chekhov play."

To that end, some have adapted Chekhov stories for the stage. Others have zeroed in on his early, unruly, sprawling Platonov and cut it down to size. Brustein has turned to three of Chekhov's one-act farces, which were known as vaudevilles in their time, and adapted them in combination with a short play of his own and excerpts from Chekhov's correspondence to create an evening called Three Farces and a Funeral.

The idea took hold last spring, when Brustein was searching for a project for Yuri Yeremin, artistic director of the Moscow Pushkin Theater and director of ART's Ivanov. Yeremin had already worked on two Chekhov one-acts with students in the ART/Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. Brustein had already written Chekhov on Ice, a 10-minute play about Chekhov's dying moments at a spa in Germany that was included in the second annual Boston Theater Marathon at the Boston Playwrights' Theater last April. After discussing other possibilities, the two men decided that the deathbed scene might provide both a contrast and a context for the themes of love and marriage in three of Chekhov's comic one-acts, The Proposal, The Bear, and The Wedding.

For Yeremin, this means an opportunity to introduce American audiences to another side of Chekhov. "American spectators are most familiar with his famous plays -- The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. And the tradition is often to stage them in a sad, boring, melancholy manner. With these vaudevilles we want to show that there is another Chekhov, young, brilliant, funny, full of life, with a great and even grotesque sense of humor. This is Chekhov too." Brustein points out that despite the prevailing comic tone, Chekhov "finds the basis for these comedies in pain. He associates courtship with strife. If they were just superficial, buffoonish comedies, we wouldn't pay the slightest bit of attention to them. But like all of his work, it is rooted in some reality, and that reality is pain."

At the time he wrote his vaudevilles, Chekhov was famous for his inveterate bachelorhood. "He ran like a thief from marriage all his life," says Brustein, "and only very reluctantly agreed to marry Olga Knipper," the leading lady of the Moscow Art Theatre, where his masterpieces achieved their first success. Chekhov was already sick when they married, in May 1901. His poor health required that he spend much of his time at his estate in Yalta, on the Black Sea, whereas Olga's flourishing career kept her in Moscow. Their prolonged separations led to an active correspondence, which Brustein draws on to construct what he calls (after Robert Wilson) "knee plays" -- joints to join the farces together.

Olga was there in Germany at her husband's side when he succumbed to the illness that had plagued him for years. "Chekhov had one of the most beautiful of legendary deaths," says Brustein. "One thinks of Henry James saying, `So here it is at last, that distinguished thing,' or Henrik Ibsen rising up from his deathbed and saying, `On the contrary!', and then dying. Those are significant in the way that they reflect on the style of the writers, but with Chekhov it was a death that revealed the quality of the man, just as his own work reveals the quality of the man rather than any particular style."

What was that quality? Every Chekhov lover has a similar answer. Despite his notorious personal privacy, says Brustein, "you know exactly who he was from the plays. Humane to the marrow of his bones, tough-minded, not at all sentimental, totally non-ideological, uninterested in intellectuality or abstract ideas, concerned about the tide of provinciality and mediocrity that was beginning to overcome the more interesting and decent men and women of his generation, full of moral purpose regarding where we had to go and what we had to do to save ourselves."

Three Farces and a Funeral is in repertory at the American Repertory Theatre December 8 through January 14. Tickets are $25 to $59; call 547-8300.