Almost an Evening by Ethan Coen at the Bleeker Street Theatre, New York. Featuring F. Murray Abraham.
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov at The Classic Stage Company. Featuring Dianne Wiest (Arkadine); Alan Cumming (Trigorin); others
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen. Translated by Peter Watts. Directed by Regge Life for the Pearl Theatre Company. Featuring TJ Edwards (Engstrand); Keiana Richard (Regina Engstrande); Tom Galantich (Pastor Manders); Mrs. Alving (Joanne Camp); Oswald (John Behlmann)
Early Signs of Spring
Photo by Doug Hamilton
“Almost an Evening” consists of four, tangentially related brief and wry skits; they made an entertainment, if not a show. In one skit a woman in an office reception room types at a desk facing the back wall while a man waits. He tries to no avail to engage her in conversation. The point of his talk is our discovery that the room has no door. So, he is trapped in a “no place,” very likely a literal afterlife.
In another skit, a man is trapped in allusions to an afterlife. His term is misunderstood by a monitor of sorts at a typewriter, so he is delayed there. Is it purgatory? He eventually and logically finds he is in hell, for he believes wrongly that there is a heaven. It’s a witty idea. Another sketch with F. Murray Abraham in a priestly, white gown has him sermonizing in a fury of indignation at Everyman, us. Beat up the audience is his basic idea. There is no other in evidence.
Far and away the best theater of a rich season was the Classic Stage Company’s “The Seagull” Dianne Wiest plays the celebrated actress Arkadina with quiet elegance. Chekhov plainly liked her, for he never allows her son Konstantin Treplev (Ryan O’Nan) to exploit their natural differences to put her down. He subverts that conventional understanding of the relationship. Arkadina instead served as a kind of model or preparation for Elena in “The Cherry Orchard” For her part, Arkadina demonstrates her professionalism and her maker’s respect for the stage with her sang froid
The play’s secondary theme centers around theater mocking theater, for Nina, a neighbor, is permitted speechify on the subject. The whole puts us in mind of Chekhov’s sense of theater’s invitation to express emotion, to make big gestures. At the same time Chekhov typically avoids mature sexual love, as he does here with the mildly satiric Treplev’s unrequited love; and again in “Vanya.” Sonya and Vanya in that play should make a couple, but he dotes on the Professor’s wife Elena, a wrong choice. In “The Seagull” the novelist Trigorin (Alan Cumming) floats in and out as privileged commentator of sorts. More accurately, there are no central characters in “The Cherry Orchard,” whereas here they are not quite absorbed into the group. The doctor, as many critics have suggested, Dorn ( David Rasche) comes closest to representing Chekhov’s alter ego.
Put this differently: the play creates an emotional network within a circumscribed group. The kinds of emotion are subtle, shaded, communicated indirectly. The structure, too, appears in retrospect like a model for later work. Act I builds the network with the arrival of the landowners, while alluding to their background and setting. There is undramatic talk, discursive talk that grows increasingly “broody” and strained. Outsiders and insiders interact until tension is broken with a shot fired off stage. Plot in other words substitutes a disruption for slow sequential revelations that drama conventionally asks for. Then follows departure and a reassertion with a difference of the status quo ante. There is some probing of characters’ motivations, whereas none of that remains in “The Cherry Orchard” Motives and meanings are diffused in settings, gestures, small acts of daily life.
Only a god wields greater moral authority than a dead father, and a father who loses none to death. Rather, a dead father implies death as a necessary condition for life. Say, dying is a definition of life. Further, yes, in life all fathers differ. From their persistence, however, we see from their common practice of haunting that they are present but aloof, unreachable, alive in another dimension, beyond the arm of social relations. His children typically do not know that. He is an icon, yet they believe him to be accessible along a path of ordinary social relations, if only they could find it. In this sense, to them he differs little whether alive or dead.
Perhaps the last father with absolute moral authority was Lear, despite his knowing himself “but slenderly.” The father’s power for good or ill still counted heavily throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. We feel it strongly in the ghost of Captain Alving and catch glimpses of life without the father in all of Ibsen. His heroines, in fact, refer indirectly to the father’s end, to his absence–the idea is illogical but close to the point. The heroine’s emergence depends on his death. Father and child do not coexist in nature. Hedda Gabler proves this with Ibsen’s exaggeration of her conventionally male secondary traits: her authority, rejection of sentiment, indifference to romance; her gun and the opportunity to use it. She has absorbed the father; to leave him out of her character is to misread her.
Ibsen reveals him in “Ghosts” to be a diseased and criminal ancestor about to be memorialized fraudulently by his wife with a huge orphanage in his name. Well, orphanage and irony. His son Oswald is dying, but not before he turns lunatic in the play’s final scene. Had the father been dramatized alive, the play would have been melodrama about a philandering husband. Instead, Ibsen gives the dead father a handicap, to put it mildly, and situates him in Mrs. Alving’s reality, that of the dramatic action. There the sun is shining. When her son makes her responsible to help him go out with the morphine he has brought for the purpose, we learn his plan through her horror. Ibsen gives the theme a twist by having Regina reject the entire household, dead and living, when she discovers Oswald is an invalid. He never gets a chance to persuade her to his terrible goal.
Each character discovers a new Captain Alving whose ghosts destroy their lives. Oswald, for one, finds that Regina is a stepsister rather than the woman he might marry. She cares nothing for any of the family. And Mrs. Alving learns that her son cares nothing about the dead father’s reputation, or that he was an ordinary, philanderer destroys an icon of middle class morality. These are cool-eyed realities behind unexamined values. Ibsen’s deep subject, the costs of individual responsibility, runs high. It can’t be helped. We, however, have not for decades been victimized by a legacy of venereal disease. Without that, the play lurches along with an audience in mild disbelief: asking more or less, What is the fuss about? Is Oswald on penicillin? And why is Mrs. Alving suddenly, and so complacently bountiful as to offer Regina employment in her household should the need arise. She always has known Regina as her stepdaughter.
Mrs. Alving is a big, big role in the repertory ready to be exploited. The woman playing the role for The Pearl Theatre, the well experienced Joanne Camp, was more suitable to the many other parts she has played with the company. She makes too young and beautiful a Mrs. Alving. TJ Edwards playing Engstrand comes across better than Tom Galantich who also is a charming but too young Pastor Manders. John Behlman as Oswald begins high and leaves himself little room at the top. In all, a commendable production by an ambitious company that might consider concentrating and deepening its range.