Monday, January 30, 2012

Time waits for no one

It was funny to read Ivan Bunin's comments on The Cherry Orchard.  He criticized Chekhov for making so much of an orchard when it was impossible to grow much of anything in the region he described, and that the land would have been of little value to a speculator like Lopakhin. It seems Bunin, like many others, had a tendency to take Chekhov literally, when the play was intended as a comedy.

Stanislavsky once again staged the play as a historic drama, taking the role of Gaev himself and casting Lopakhin as an unsympathetic local businessman intent on wresting the estate from poor Madame Ranevskaya.  Chekhov apparently didn't see Lopakhin as good or bad, but rather someone who was sympathetic to the woman and was trying to work out the best deal for her, but she and her brother simply couldn't see past their rose-tinted glasses, imagining the estate in its former glory rather than sad state of affairs that now existed.

Not surprisingly, later Soviet versions played up Lopakhin and cast Lyubov Adreievna and Leonid Anreieveitch as anachronistic beings forever trapped in their own world.  Varya is the sensible daughter and Anya the hopelessly naive one.  Vladimir Vysotsky even took a theatrical turn in The Cherry Orchard in 1974, lending his charismatic presence to Lopakhin.

Foreign versions, like this 1962 adaptation by Michel Saint-Denis with a young Judy Dench as Anya, favored the nobility.  John Gielgud offers a very dashing version of Gaev, and poor Lopakhin is reduced to the periphery.  The most interesting thing is that Dame Judy Dench returned to play Madame Ranevskaya in this 1981 production.

There is this Russian version, directed by Anna Chernakova in 1993.  After some interesting archival logging footage, the story starts with Lopakhin tending a fire and reminiscing of a time the Madame came to his aid, as in the play.  She did a follow-up to this film in 2010, entitled Death in Pince-Nez, which is reviewed in KinoKultura.  There is also this adaptation by Sergei Ovcharov, simply entitled The Garden, which he produced in 2008.

Another recent cinematic version is one directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis in 1999, starring Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates as Madame Ranevskaya and Gaev.

Tom Stoppard also takes a turn with The Cherry Orchard, teaming up with Sam Mendes for this modern British theatrical production at the BAM in 2009. Stoppard and Mendes apparently try to tie Chekhov to Beckett.

The lead photo is from a production at the Dundee Rep, directed by Vladimir Bouchler in 2009.  Take your pick.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What is Art?

The problem with Chekhov is that once you get started it is hard to stop.  I turned to The Seagull the other night in this wonderful collection, translated by Laurence Senelick.  It is perhaps his most engaging play with characters that leap off the page, such as the eternally young stage actress, Irina Arkadina, who constantly terrorizes her son, Konstantin Treplev.  He is vainly trying to break standard conventions when it comes to play writing, but finds himself unable to elicit the emotions most persons, especially his mother, look for in theater.

Senelick noted that Tolstoy didn't think much of the play, content only with a single passage in which Treplev castigated the state of the theater at the time.  But, Chekhov struck a wonderful balance between comedy and drama, not letting his speeches dominate the play.  Treplev finds he is no match for his mother, who diminishes him at every turn.  The play opens with Konstantin staging one of his plays at a summer house, only for his mother to crush his spirits with her sharp sarcasm.  Not only that, but Nina (Konstantain's love interest) is intrigued by Arkadina's "boy toy," Trigorin, a successful novelist, further devastating the would-be playwright.

The final act takes place two years later, with all the characters coming back together again pretty much in the same state of mind although much has happened in the time in between.  Seems Chekhov wanted to show that time doesn't change the situation except to show Masha's strong interest in Treplev, despite having married Medvedev and having a child.  Treplev still maintains his unrequited love for Nina.  Arkadina remains indifferent to everyone but herself and Trigorin is content to play his part in this melodrama, oblivious to anyone's feelings.

Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but Stanislavsky treated the play they way he did historic dramas, casting the characters as polar opposites.  This was before he would modernize the theater.  Chekhov was very dissatisfied with Stanislavsky's production, but it was a success and for years remained the definitive version.

Savelyeva (Nina)
The classic film version is this 1970 Russian production, Chayka, directed by Yuri Karasik, with some of Russia's finest stage actors of the era, including a young Lyudmila Savelyeva as Nina.  Pictured above is Alla Demidova as Arkadina.  There was also a ballet version with Maya Plisetskaya and music by Rodion Shchedrin, from 1980. But, probably the best known version is Sidney Lumet's 1968 adaptation, thanks to its all-star cast that included Simone Signoret (Arkadina), James Mason (Trigorin), Vanessa Redgrave (Nina), and David Warner (Treplev).   Here's a clip of the opening scene.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exporting Vanya

It was a return to Chekhov over the weekend as I watched Vanya of 42nd Street, an interesting adaptation of the play by David Mamet filtered through the lens of Louis Malle.  I had seen it years ago and had remembered it fondly.  It was nice not to be disappointed the second time around.

The production has its flaws.  I think it was a little too melodramatic at times but Wallace Shawn is good as Vanya.  Larry Pines is excellent as Astrov and Julianne Moore simply divine as Yelena.  The supporting cast is filled out nicely with George Gaynes providing the necessary aplomb to the role of Serybryakov.

There is a certain amount of overlap in Chekhov's plays but it was interesting to see that Uncle Vanya is an adaptation of an earlier play, The Wood Demon, with several of the same characters and much of the same dialog.  Chekhov was never satisfied with his earlier play and chose to rework it.  He had fallen under the spell of Tolstoyism during the writing of The Wood Demon and by 1897 had second thoughts about the idealism Tolstoy inspired.

Astrov is a carry over of Krushchov, the good doctor who has such a great interest in maintaining the nation's forests for the sake of posterity.  But, in Uncle Vanya, Astrov questions whether it is all worth it.  He makes a speech very similar to Krushchov in the first act, extolling the virtues of forest management, but by the third act he makes it clear to Yelena in a set of maps that it is a losing proposition.  He notes that if progress had resulted in better roads, schools and the general welfare of the people, he could justify the despoiling that had taken place in their region, but all he sees is more poverty.  Perhaps Chekhov's own disillusionment is reflected through the once starry-eyed Astrov.

Eventually, Astrov, like Vanya and Sofiya, returns to his work after the professor and his lovely wife leave for a remote city where he hopes to settle into retirement.  As with The Cherry Orchard, the important thing is to accept your condition in life.

Chekhov's plays are more a vehicle to vent anxieties than a search for some great dramatic victory or great truth.  In many cases, his plays were intended as social comedies, poking fun at all the frustrated ambitions of living on country estates, detached from the cultural and intellectual hubs of Moscow and Petersburg.  Whatever talents his characters have are minimal, yet they aspire for something more than their work-a-day lives, which is why audiences were drawn to his plays, as they voiced many of the same anxieties they felt.  This is especially the case with Uncle Vanya, one of his most enduring plays.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Not Everyone Loves Raymond

This documentary caught my eye, which chronicles the attempt by Sony to bring Everyone Loves Raymond to Moscow, recasting the situation television comedy with Russian actors.  Unlike previous efforts with The Nanny and Married with Children, Raymond proved to be quite cumbersome.  Maybe that's because it wasn't a very good sitcom to begin with, but one that filled a void on American television after the long run by Seinfeld. But, you can't argue with success and Rosenthal chooses to lash out at Russian producers and costume designers who tried to jazz up the show, thinking it might play better to a Russian audience.  Here's the trailer.

From what I've seen Russians tend to prefer variety shows, with comic sketches, such as the highly popular Наша Russia, rather than the uniquely American situation comedy.  While some sitcoms do travel well, others fall flat.  Friends has a big international audience, thanks largely to the star power of its actors, who all went onto successful Hollywood careers. By contrast, Seinfeld is too specific in its humor to gain much of an international audience.

Where Russia truly excels is in slapstick comedy, for which there have been no shortage of movies over the years.  Maybe adapting one of these movies into a "sitcom" might prove more successful than Raymond?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

From Russia with Love

When it comes to "Cold War" movies, I prefer mine stirred, not shaken.  Always had a soft spot for Bond's second escapade, From Russia with Love, which featured the lovely Daniela Bianchi as agent 007's muse, Tatiana Romanova.  Robert Shaw provides the nasty villian, and Lotte Lenya makes a surprise appearance as KGB agent, Rosa Klebb.

The Soviet Union was a dark, mysterious place seen mostly through the lens of the Cold War.  Apparently, Putin and his KGB comrades used to enjoy Michael Caine's Harry Palmer movies, such as Funeral in Berlin, or so the story goes.   Even in films like North by Northwest you could see it in the subtext.  But, perhaps the most memorable film from that era is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with Richard Burton as British agent Alec Leamas near the end of his rope.  The film focuses mostly on the East-West divide in Germany, and was adapted from a John Le Carre novel.

The theme has its earlier precedents, such as the whimsical Ninotchka, starring Melvyn Douglass and Greta Garbo.  The 1939 film is set in Paris at the time of the Russian Revolution, with Garbo as a stern Russian agent sent to see what the problem is with a jewel transaction.  She doesn't count on a charming count foiling her plans.  Bela Lugosi even pops up in the film as Commissar Razinin.

By contrast, the Soviet Union didn't seem as obsessed with the spy genre, although the Dead Season (Мертвый сезон) stands out from 1968, starring Donatas Banionis (also seen in Solaris) as Ladeynikov.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My Favorite Clown

It was fun watching Oleg Menshikov in Moy lyubimyy kloun the other night.  The movie dates back to 1986, the year of Chernobyl, and offers an interesting look at life under the big top.  The film revolves around Sergei, the clown, and a 6-year-old boy, Vanka, whom he has adopted.  The film has the added bonus of Vladimir Ilin as Menshikov's sidekick.  Worth checking out in full.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Déjà vu

Call it a continuation, if you want, but extending The Irony of Fate into present day Russia simply doesn't work.  Much of the irony was in response to life in the old USSR, but here we get an all too contemporary view of Russia (2007) with a young couple repeating virtually the same situation as in the original movie.  It doesn’t help that the young actors fumble with their roles, unable to achieve the same spark that existed a generation before.  The only real twist is the relationship the young couple has with the main characters, Nadya, Ippolit and Zhenya, from Ryazanov's 1975 classic.  All three actors reprise their roles.  Better to see the original again.