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Howard Sherman: Chekh-mate – why modern playwrights are turning to the classics for inspiration

Kimberly Chatterjee, Michael Schantz, Stacey Linnartz, Austin Pendleton, Nadia Bowers and Barbara Kingsley in Life Sucks, running Off-Broadway. Photo: Russ Rowland
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Anton Chekhov has been cursing up a storm this summer in New York. Sort of.

There are currently two – fairly swearey – versions of Chekhov’s work adapted by contemporary playwrights running Off-Broadway. Life Sucks, by Aaron Posner (who previously wrote a popular Seagull adaptation called Stupid Fucking Bird), gives Uncle Vanya a modern sensibility at the Acorn Theater.

Meanwhile, Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a riff on The Three Sisters, keeps the action in pre-revolutionary Russia but streamlines it to 90 minutes and imbues it with up-to-date American argot at MCC Theater.

They are not the only ones to turn to Chekhov for inspiration. Two years ago on Broadway, Andrew Upton adapted Platonov as The Present, and Alan Ayckbourn’s Vanya variation Dear Uncle – reset to the Lake District between the World Wars – first seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is now running at Theatre by the Lake. Back in 2004, Manhattan Theatre Club produced Regina Taylor’s Drowning Crow, inspired by The Seagull.

The Present review at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York – ‘Cate Blanchett shines’

All of the works mentioned retained much of the plots of the originals, even if names, places, style of speech and dress and so on were variously altered.

Current playwrights are clearly engaged by the works of Chekhov and want to put their own spin on the material, which is not protected by copyright.

The language used to acknowledge the relationship between the Russian doctor and his modern acolytes can vary widely from production to production. Sometimes the plays are described as being written by the new playwright, sometimes as by Chekhov but in a translation or adaptation by the new playwright. Some are inspired by the original, others consider what they’ve done to be a new play but ‘in conversation’ with the original author.

Tavi Gevinson, Rebecca Henderson and Chris Perfetti in MCC Theater’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow. Photo: Joan Marcus

This reinvention is not unique to the Russian master. In a panel discussion at MCC Theater two weeks ago, playwrights Jordan E Cooper, Halley Feiffer, Kate Hamill and Lucas Hnath gathered to explore the topic of modern works inspired by the classics, and provided some insight into their fascination and intent.

Feiffer recalled reading The Three Sisters in high school, saying: “It was the first text I read that I found utterly inscrutable.” She undertook her version because “I wanted to illuminate what I found evocative and moving”.

Hamill, who has adapted novels by Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott for the stage, is now working on a version of Dracula for Classic Stage Company. She described the book as “a super sexist novel, even more than you would think”, so she decided to approach her version as if it were a new play, “taking a super sexist source and exploring who the vampires of the world are today”.

Cooper took inspiration for Ain’t No Mo’ from a more modern work, George C Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, saying he chose to “take this root and surround it with new branches”. Hnath said of his A Doll’s House, Part II that his goal was to explore the original work through “counterarguments unsaid that I thought it would be interesting to give voice to”.

The panel moderator, playwright and director Robert O’Hara, shared a musing of his own, saying: “I always wanted to write a play called Williamstown, where all of the black characters in Tennessee Williams plays gather while the rest of the plays are going on”.

Lucas Hnath, Jordan E Cooper, Kate Hamill and Halley Feiffer taking part in a a panel discussion at MCC Theater. Photo: Da Ping Luo

Shows like Feiffer’s and Posner’s, by taking new titles, make pretty clear that audience members shouldn’t expect the original work. Nonetheless, Feiffer recounted: “I literally held the door for people leaving at intermission – and that’s why we cut the intermission.”

Hamill mentioned receiving outraged emails. Yet Hnath related that perhaps not everyone is all that clear on the original works, saying he overheard someone asking their companion, in regards to A Doll’s House: “Is that the one where she walks out or the one where she kills herself?”

Certainly rewriting works is not a new phenomenon but it comes to mind not only because of the two aforementioned current Chekhov variations but also Luis Alfaro’s reinvention of Medea as Mojada, the latest of his works rooted in the classics. It does suggest an interesting way of addressing the fact that the classic Western theatrical canon consists almost exclusively of works by white European and American men.

Producing those works in their original form today doesn’t always fit with theatres’ mission of diversity and inclusion, even if the cast and creative team are diverse, because the work remains fundamentally what it has always been.

That’s not to say classics should be erased. But perhaps re-examining them through a modern lens – encouraging women and non-binary artists, artists of colour and artists with disabilities to refract them through their view of the world and the text – potentially reinvigorates some dusty or problematic texts. It also sends audiences in search of the original works as well.

Truth be told, I’ve seen two versions of Uncle Vanya, but never a wholly straightforward translation of the play. The same holds true for Medea. Perhaps that’s a fault on my part, but whenever that gets rectified, I’ll already be familiar with the plot and the themes, thanks not to the original authors, but to their contemporary interpreters. They are stepping stones to the theatrical past, not roadblocks.

Rupert Everett’s Uncle Vanya review at Theatre Royal Bath – ‘a subdued production’

This week in US theatre

Last night marked the opening of Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell the Musical, which struggled through some significant travails as it made its way to New York.

Jay Scheib once again directs, with a cast that includes Andrew Polec, Christina Bennington, Lena Hall and Bradley Dean. It’s not on Broadway, but rather in New York City Center, a former Shriners’ Temple that actually seats more people than a Broadway house.

It’s scheduled only until September 8, but the City Center website doesn’t show another booking until late October, so it could rock on a while longer, instead of a short run that leaves audiences all revved up with no place to go.

Bess Wohl’s Make Believe, a study of four siblings in their youth and as adults, first seen at Hartford Stage, makes its debut in a new production directed by Michael Greif, opening Thursday. Second Stage is mounting a veritable Bess Wohl festival this season, having just announced that her play Grand Horizons will play their Broadway venue, with previews beginning just before Christmas.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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