Fri Jan 10 2014
Leading experimental director-designer Jay Scheib continues to blur the lines between mediums with a “live-cinema performance” of Anton Chekhov’s unfinished first play, performed by a cast that includes Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Sarita Choudhury and Tony Torn, and broadcast live each night to select local movie theaters.
Platonov, or The Disinherited: Theater review by Helen Shaw
You can obviously do what you like with Chekhov’s unpublished, untitled first drama, commonly referred to as Platonov: After its rejection in the 1870s, Anton himself cannibalized it for parts, then abandoned it. Therefore, the battered old melodramatic monster actually seems to benefit from the Jay Scheib multimedia treatment; its louche content and still-tangible sense of authorial neglect make it seem as though it wants to be tossed aside, roughed up, dirtied, burlesqued.
Scheib’s adaptation, Platonov, or The Disinherited, scrambles together existential and erotic angst: Womanizing schoolteacher Platonov (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) has lost his lust for life, even as he careers from wife Sasha (a compelling Ayesha Ngaujah) to lover Anna (glorious Sarita Choudhury) and old flame Sonya (Virginia Newcomb). This summer day, most are drunk, the heat has gotten to everyone, there’s a vague threat of violence in the air. Anna’s Cherry Orchard–esque estate is slipping lazily away from her, and while her vulgar suitor, Porfiry (downtown treasure Tony Torn), would be a practical solution, she can’t quite bring herself to the point of decision.
Scheib and company apply their usual strategies of luxurious disarray, live-edited video (the director backs around onstage, filming and giving murmured instructions) and faux-stumblebum staging mayhem. Caleb Wertenbaker gives the ensemble an astonishing environment—a red-lit sauna, an AstroTurf-floored house and a bedroom stretch under a single dominating, drive-in-sized screen. As ever, the set conceals a great deal; we must peep around the obstructing walls by looking through windows and into mirrors or by waiting for the video feed to show us what lurks behind.
Platonov‘s more instantly pleasurable than some of the group’s other works—Scheib’s company is now thick with anarchic theater creatures and clowns, capable of great humor even as their director jams a camera under their chin. Exempt from the joy are bracketing anachronistic monologues spoken by Laine Rettmer (the first one discusses the Internet bubble and Nirvana), which turn back toward a wooden, anhedonic style—perhaps Scheib’s attempt to frame the play’s juiciness with something icy and nonescapist. Well may he try though, because—jump back, avant-gardeers—there’s a real danger that we could be having an old-fashioned, rollicking good time. It’s still a Jay Scheib joint, so there are deliberate longueurs and desultory pacing that balks at any kind of dramatic propulsion. But Chekhov’s overheated plaintiveness perfectly meshes with the playpen atmosphere, and suddenly there’s no joke too small or silly for the camera or Choudhury to find.
The play and its production do other kind offices for each other: What in Chekhov is a portrait of a postaristocratic class watching its primacy decline becomes a sly commentary on the eternally losing tussle between theater and film. This show’s innovation is a bit of a gimmick: The live-edited video is broadcast to local movie screens à la the Metropolitan Opera in HD. Yet even those of us in the room were looking compulsively at the screen rather than at the actual bodies in front of us. So, wait, who is being disinherited here? Could it be liveness itself that is lost in a nostalgic haze?
Suddenly we imagine theater as a Chekhovian heroine—a self-deluded beauty, spending her favors unthriftily and refusing to see the changes that threaten to make her obsolete. In a certain mood, that could be depressing. But here, with the cast firing guns at each other six to the dozen, it simply seems like one of those marvelous, weary Russian jokes.—Theater review by Helen Shaw