Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Evening's Entertainment

After binge watching Luther, House of Cards and the first four seasons of Girls over the last few weeks, Annie and I tried something a little different last night. Friends of ours had invited us over for a light dinner and a read-through of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. We scurried out into a squalling rain storm and arrived late, chilled and dripping. It reminded me of Bill Murray's playwright character Jeff, in Tootsie:
I don't want a full house at the Winter Garden theater. I want ninety people who just came out of the worst rainstorm in the city's history. These are people who are alive on the planet -- until they dry off. I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained.
There were seven of as altogether, veterans of the Nantucket Theater workshop, and one younger woman I had seen a few years ago playing Emily in a superb local production of Our Town. Our host had directed me in two David Mamet plays and acted with me in one,  back in the 90s. Annie had acted in or directed plays with all of them. She played Mrs. Webb in Our Town and Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degrees of Separation a couple of years ago, alongside two of the other guests. Our hostess studied Chekhov at Yale and has directed and acted in numerous productions, good and bad. She made an interesting point, between the home-made chicken soup and the table read: Bad Chekhov happens when people play to the language -- acting sad an mopey when they say things like "What does it matter? My life is over!" When actors treat the lines as comic, or at least ironic, they spring to life. Turns out, despair is kind of funny if you're stuck in the midle of it and realize how ridiculous you are.
We read through the play, pausing now and then to talk about what was really happening in a scene.("Astrov and Yalena are flirting here"; "Sonya just wants to be comforted") It was fascinating, and soon the fatigue of a long day burned off and the wry sad fatalistic brilliance of the play took over. We reached the end and sat in stunned silence for a few minutes. The play felt as fresh and contemporary as if it were being prepared for an off-Broadway run today. Astrov was actually upset about deforrestation and global warming -- in 1897. Our hostess pointed out that Chekhov was the first playwright to make drama out of ordinary lives -- not the kings and princes of Shakespeare, fighting great battles, but  down-at-heel landowners and doctors and failed academics, muddling through. He wrote them as workshop pieces so his friend Konstantin Stanislavsky could have scene work for his students as they worked out his new concepts of psychological drama.
By the end of the evening we were telling crazy anecdotes of the old days at the Theater Workshop (The actress who fell asleep in the middle of a scene, the actor who showed up drunk and almost killed himself making his entrance down a fire-pole, head-first) , planning new projects and reminiscing about evenings like this back in the 70s when there was literally nothing else to do during the long Nantucket winters.
When we got home I was reminded of acting in the old days, when I was way too wired after a performance to go to sleep. I finally dozed off around two in the morning and woke up to find myself redirected on the computer to the "walled garden" Comcast payment website. I was late with my bill and they wanted $179 to turn my cable and internet back on. Of course I paid them -- they make that part easy, at least. But I couldn't help thinking about the difference between the prefabricated TV entertainment we'd been staring at for the last few weeks, and the night before. Television, even the best television, is a supremely passive experience, designed to be narcotic. At the end of the last episiode you can barely crawl off to bed.
After a night of Chekov, we were flying.
Every element of the experiene seemed designed to awaken the dormant synapses -- the rain, the old friends, and most of all, the text. Just reading it aloud in a robotic monotone would have spiked the brain activity visible on an MRI. Actually engaging with the characters and their interactions, trying to understand what they wanted and what they were doing, probably caused a cranial fireworks display that would put the Fourth of July to shame. I thought of educated people in earlier centuries, with no X-box or movies, nothing to stream or download, playing chamber music together in the evenings. This was no different.
And as I typed in my routing number and my account number for the greedy corporate story-mongers at Comcast, I couldn't help noting one other signifiant fact: The Chekhov was free.