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What's Up, Doc? : The Potency of Anton Chekhov's Plays Continues--With 8 Southland Productions

March 30, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The month of March has seen an odd phenomenon in the theater scene in Orange and Los Angeles counties: Stagings of eight plays by Anton Chekhov have popped up--sort of an unheralded Chekhov festival--including "Uncle Vanya" at Cal State Fullerton, "The Three Sisters" at Orange Coast College and the one-act "The Brute" at Saddleback College.

This year does not mark the birth or death of the Russian playwright; he was born in 1860 and died of tuberculosis in 1904. It is the 100th anniversary of the world premiere of "The Seagull," a play seen recently at the Hollywood Court Theatre and scheduled as part of the spring season at Glendale's A Noise Within. But that doesn't explain coincidental productions of other Chekhov works.

Nor does the recent publication of a startling new biography by British Chekhov scholar Donald Rayfield. Rayfield, who said in 1975 that everything there was to know about Chekhov was known, has had to reconsider.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, intimate letters and documents pertaining to Chekhov have become available. The Soviet government had kept the material secret, not wanting to besmirch the image of "the good doctor," a national hero. The myth of a jolly medical practitioner who dashed off literature in his spare time was inviolate.

Rayfield's bio reveals Chekhov as a hard-working but not very dedicated doctor. Literature was his true love. There were scores of women through the years, but even they took second place to his writing. He waged a constant battle with his family, not only with a pompous and cruel father who beat his children unmercifully, but with his two wastrel older brothers.

Rayfield's entirely new portrait of Chekhov will have theater directors and scholars reassessing his work. He suddenly is more believably the man who wrote those insightful, and often very funny, tales about a disintegrating society.

Marilyn Fox, artistic director of Venice's Pacific Resident Theatre, which is presenting Chekhov's early play "Ivanov," says the new Chekhov image helps explain the understanding and humanity so evident in his plays. The "good doctor," she believes, probably would not have written so sympathetically about the Jewish wife in "Ivanov" during a period when anti-Semitism was especially rampant in Russia.

None of the current productions was put in motion for any reason other than that the theaters wanted to do Chekhov--Fox because of a great love of "Ivanov," which she first saw in London in the 1970s.

Art Manke, one-third of the triumvirate that runs A Noise Within, says "The Seagull" is on the spring schedule because it fits so well into this season's theme: "Believers and Deceivers." Manke describes Chekhov's plays as "filled with such wonderful insights into human life, and joy and humor and pathos, that audiences are always going to be attracted to them. And they're always pertinent."

Cal State Fullerton's Gretchen Kanne decided on the eve of retirement that she wanted to do one more Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya." Fortunately, she says, she had a couple of graduate students "that I thought could pull it off." Her concept takes place during a rehearsal of the play.

"It tries to draw the relevancy of Chekhov's work toward the audience," Kanne says, "so the philosophy doesn't seem so removed, his view of humanity--the ironic, kind of bittersweet taste. I find him an existentialist writer. He winds it all together in a metaphor that seems timeless."

At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, staff member Cynthia Corley is overseeing the student-directed production of "The Three Sisters."

"The students really enjoyed working on the short Chekhovs [last season], so we decided to do a big Chekhov. It was nothing terribly deliberate. It just sort of came about."

That simple love of Chekhov is what's apparently fueling the wealth of stagings, done for the most part with no knowledge of the other productions nearby.

Director Fred Ponzlov, who guided the recently closed "The Cherry Orchard" at the New Community Theatre of Irvine, says he is in love with the play. He worked in a production of it at Milwaukee Rep years ago and says he has seen or worked on a couple of hundred stagings.

"The play is bottomless," Ponzlov says. "It's about people going through incredible changes. It sort of ties in to the coming millennium. Change is coming, and either people go with it or they can't."

Indeed, the timelessness of Chekhov appeals to all these artists. His philosophies, so pertinent 100 years ago, still resonate at the end of this century.

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