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Novel narrative means prove downfall of ART's In Twilight

IN TWILIGHT:

TALES FROM CHEKHOV

Directed by Tina Landau.

The American Repertory Theatre.

At the Hasty Pudding Theatre.

By MARK ROBERTS

THE AMERICAN REPERTORY Theatre is opening its eighth New Stages series on a gentle note with stage adaptations of four short stories by the Russian writer Chekhov. Although he was better known for his plays, Chekhov was prolific in this miniature literary form, publishing over ten thousand pages of stories and tales in the first twenty years of his artistic life. His stories share the bittersweet poignancy of the plays in their acute observation of people's daily lives. Although set firmly in the society and period in which he wrote, they have universal significance in their theme of the tragedies and joys of human relations and experience.

The pieces in ART's production do not leap further from the form and structure of the original short stories than is needed, for in all four one of the characters doubles as a narrator, often offering direct authorial comment on the action as well as describing it further and filling in details of people's histories. Although this technique allows the precise point of the story to be reproduced exactly, it is disappointing that such a literal approach to the adaptation was taken in all four plays. Given that the program notes quote Chekhov as saying he thought that "The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge," one might have expected that in some at least the action might have been allowed to stand on its own on stage without extra commentary. The decision to always have a narrator suggests a lack of confidence. It did, however, stress the deliberate artifice of what we saw, which was further emphasized by the combination of rich period costume with an open, canvas-draped stage, mimed or extemporized props, and a costume rail prominently displayed on stage. By freezing the actors in some well-composed tableaux while the narrator passed comment, the director offered us the characters as specimens to subject to the detailed scrutiny which the scientifically meticulous Chekhov intended.

The first of the stories was The Butterfly, a tale of futile adultery and waste. Would-be artistic socialite Olga Ivanovna (Ellen Kohrman), the butterfly of the title, marries an earnest doctor to the bemusement of her artistic friends. They start off deeply in love, but gradually she slips into an affair with a pretentious painter (Ed Schloth), and she and her husband Dymov become more and more distant. In one of the more effective of the various narrative techniques employed in the production, the married couple would sometimes speak aloud to the audience thoughts going through their heads as they spoke to one another, demonstrating the barrier between them that their conversation can no longer surmount. When Dymov receives his doctorate and confides this news to his wife, who is hurriedly dressing for the theater, all the pent up emotion of this undemonstrative man is on offer -- "if she will join me in this, I will forgive her everything, past, present, and future," he thinks. His wife's thought -- "I do not understand or care. . . and besides, I am late for the theater" slides out behind her vacuous reply. Although this was a moving moment, it was characteristic of the evening that the director should choose to have the subtext made explicit, rather than leaving it to emerge from the action. A more confident director might have left these thoughts unspoken, trusting the audience to understand their import from the situation and actors' behavior alone.

Steve Hofvendahl played Dymov modestly as a man who falls into the slightly ridiculous role in which other, more confident people choose to cast him. He reveals his decency and bewilderment at the lack of understanding of artistic society for his scientific endeavors in a moving speech in which he asks why his wife's friends will not accept natural science without understanding it much in the same way that he accepts their landscapes and concertos, whose beauty he fails to appreciate. It is a problem which Chekhov, who studied as a medical student himself, was particularly well placed to understand.

Difficult People, which followed, also featured a medical student, the son of a poor family who needs to ask his father for money with which to return to college (various elements in the evening's entertainment seemed particularly designed to appeal to MIT students). The piece was shorter and tighter than its predecessor, focusing on the internal dynamics of a particularly unhappy family dominated by a bully of a father. Harry S. Murphy played the father tempestuously and genuinely looked the part of the scowling earthy tyrant. Despite the fiery subject matter, the treatment was also a little lighter and produced better results, for the son would step out of character to offer wry commentary on the proceedings.

The longest of the pieces, In the Ravine, never found the precision and concentration characteristic of the best short stories. It offered a plethora of interesting images and situations -- the sullen village festering in pollution from its factories, a counterfeiter with the ability to see the evil in people's hearts, his pious mother who sees only the good, a simple soul who likes to eat jam and loses her baby to the cruelty of a jealous flirt -- but in such profusion that the end result was confusion. Perhaps a jumble is a truer piece of life than a neatly tailored slice, but often this scene seemed to be intending to go somewhere and then lost its way, making for dissatisfying drama. Nonetheless, individual performances and episodes were impressive: Charles Geyer as Anisim, the wild eyed forger, and Alice Manning as the saintly Varvara Nikolayevna, "who gets fatter and paler" were both absorbing to watch.

The last piece, The Student, returned to the simplicity and brevity of a single strong idea but failed to convince. The episode in which a student, cold and gloomy as he trudges along the road, is reawakened through his chance encounter with two women to the sheer, utter joy of life reflected in the very arrangement of the world around him, is potentially very moving. The experience Chekhov is trying to describe is a powerful one, but Steven Zahn, who played the student, was not able to display this very personal emotion or describe it in his role as narrator. The drawback of this halfway approach to the adaptation was particularly apparent here, where one felt that one neither had the chance to imagine the emotion for oneself as one would if one were to read the story, nor the chance to experience it through another's portrayal on stage.

Here's this - photos in the drawer plus prog in folder. By the way, if Jonthon is doing it for the csm, and no one else wants to particularly ( although I realise I've probably had my turn with Aida), I would love to review Rosenkavalier at the opera. What by the way is the policy over summer things - do we cover them much? - eg ballet co from belgium in early June ? - Mark