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LETTERS TO EDITOR
2002 Chekhov Now Festival
By Jerry Weinstein
A dish for infidels? Nothing of the sort. While fusty productions of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya abound, the stated mission of the Chekhov Now festival is to showcase the work of Anton Chekhov in "compelling and innovative ways." For sheer audacity, Moscow fulfills this promise and demands attention. Playwright Nick Salamone does not mean to lampoon his Chekhov. In fact, his text is simultaneously reverential and irreverent.
Moscow’s premise is deceptively simple. Three men find themselves in an undefined purgatory. To pass the time they indulge in a few pursuits. When not batting around a softball, they are, in turns, flirtatious and then contentious. When a copy of Three Sisters appears, rehearsing it takes center stage.
Each of the three men mirror their Sisters characters. There is Jon who makes for a poignant Olga, a gay man of a certain age who has lost a lover to AIDS; Matthew, a wise-beyond-his-years Masha, and Luke, a Southern twink who gives needed zip to Irina. It was almost beyond the radar of this secular Jew that their character names are also shared by three of Christ’s apostles. There are close parallels: John was the first to recognize Christ, while Jon of Moscow discovers and translates the Russian text of Three Sisters; Matthew was best known for his understanding of mercy, his counterpart in Matt shares his compassion. Apostle Luke is the patron saint of artists; as the son of a Baptist minister, Moscow’s Luke is kinetic and playful.
As the musical unfolds, our understanding of the three men grows in proportion to their grasp of the Chekhov play. In a sense, by transporting the play from the metaphorical to the metaphysical, Salamone has made Chekhov’s themes contemporary, universal, and thus, accessible to a wider public.
Purgatory is appropriately realized as a spare set. There is a lamp with a bare lightbulb, a trunk, a chair, a stool, and two ladders. Costumes are equally understated – three swathes of crimson silk serve as shawl, skirt, and headcover, embellishing the street dress of sweatshirts, dungarees, and chamois shirts.
Director Jessica Kubzansky has managed to create a sense of urgency that overrides any tendency towards the claustrophobic. With a marvelous text on hand she has telescoped infinity into a few well-chosen moments. While the cast is excellent, Alan Mingo Jr. as Matt, an African-American from Idaho, is a shining standout. Reading the theater notes, I was unsurprised to see that he had originated a role in the Italian version of Rent; as an infant this boy probably sang before he spoke. While Clay Storseth’s singing got a bit too Man of La Mancha for my taste, my companion pointed out that this affect was consistent with his Olga alter ago. As far as his acting is concerned, Storseth adroitly conveys the experience of many Boomer-aged gay men who have seen their communities ravaged by AIDS. Particularly poignant is his song "Behind Me," which recalls the carefree days of Fire Island, après le deluge. As Luke, Nic Arnzen brings a naughtiness to the proceedings. While his Irena is not exactly an ingénue, at various moments, his character surprises us with insight and understatement. His reading of the text neatly sums up Chekhov: "Nothing every happens, just their lives. Nothing important."
While the lyrics in this micro-musical are fast and furious, the music by Maury R. McIntrye is unremarkable. Salamone has Hart; for this musical to be embraced beyond a small circle of Chekhov devotees, he needs a Rogers. Still, it is easy to see how Moscow garnered the Audience Favorite Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. It is a jolt that leaves you laughing and reconsidering the text.
"The Lady with the Dog" and "Rothschild's Fiddle"
Gull at the 2000 Chekhov Now Festival
NOTE: This production of Gull is making a re-appearance at this year's festival.
AuNT Vanya and Uncle Vanya at the 2001 Chekhov Now Festival
CurtainUp's Playwright Album on Chekhov, including links to other reviews and other background material
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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