by John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow
December 9th, 1997 – February 1, 1998
From the Chicago Reader
December 19, 1997
By Nick Green
Unlike Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow’s biographical “Chekhov in Yalta” doesn’t portray its historical characters in a rampantly historical or anachronistic light. Nor does it descend to the level of the recent “Edgar Allan Poe – Once Upon a Midnight” at the Mercury Theater, piecing together a semblance of character from the poet’s writings alone – though Driver and Haddow obviously assign a great deal of importance to Anton Chekhov’s writings and their impact. Certainly an intimate knowledge of the derails of Chekhov’s life heightens appreciation of their work, but it isn’t necessary. Standing on its own as a piece of theater, “Chekhov in Yalta” is the perfect marriage of history and dramatic art.
Set at Chekhov’s villa in Yalta at the turn of the century, “Chekhov in Yalta” reenacts four topsy-turvy days in the life of Russia’s preeminent dramatist. Having just completed “The Three Sisters,” Chekhov spends his days fishing and shooting the breeze with Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin and Maksim Gorky and his nights being bored to tears by Lev Tolstoy’s war stories. But when the entire entourage of the Moscow Art Theatre arrives at Chekhov’s estate looking to score a hit with the playwright’s latest masterpiece, all his well-laid plans for rest and relaxation are laid to waste. Driver and Haddow’s 1981 script has all the standard components of a bawdy farce: ill-timed entrances and exits, mixed signals, furtive glances, libertines, ribald hanky-panky. What’s surprising is the play’s deep sense of history and reverence for its subjects. The members of the Moscow Art Theatre did annually descend upon Chekhov’s estate in 1900 in an attempt to secure the rights to “The Three Sisters.” Chekhov did have a torrid affair with Olga Knipper, one of the Moscow Art’s best-known actresses. And Chekhov’s extreme distaste for the methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, co-director of the Moscow Art Theatre, is well documented.
Of course Chekhov in Yalta does take some liberties. In actuality Chekhov wrote “The Three Sisters” expressly for Stanislavsky. And by all accounts the playwright. was too gravely ill with consumption to have taken as many nips to Moscow as the play suggests. But in light of Driver and Haddow’s otherwise painstaking attention to detail, such minor distortions and adjustments can be over-looked. The play, which clocks in at almost three hours, manages to synthesize a remarkable amount information, from the tiniest of facts and nuances to the most abstract of themes, like Chekhov’s love/hate affair with the theater.
To his dying day, Chekhov adamantly maintained that his full- length plays were comedies. Yet even in his lifetime, directors of Chekhov’s works devoted themselves to mining their dramatic and melancholic depths. Although mart theatergoers would be hard-pressed to find belly laughs in “The Cherry Orchard,” Chekhov thought of it as a farce. What’s unique about “Chekhov in Yalta” is that the playwrights dent find this notion in the least absurd. Covering a very short, very tumultuous period in the playwright’s life, Driver and Haddow refuse to let the situation’s inherent comedy become bogged down in its apparent drama. In this respect “Chekhov in Yalta” is a worthy piece of posthumous redemption, successfully portraying Chekhov in the manner in which he struggled to be recognized.
The entire Seanachaí cast offers wonderfully rich, tremendously physical performances. In particular, Thomas Vincent Kelly as Chekhov demonstrates a true gift for comic timing: his Chekhov is aware of his own limitations but unwilling to accept them, drawing attention away from his physical infirmities with a barrage of acerbic one-liners. Equally appealing are Mark L. Montgomery’s roguish, flamboyant Gorky, Justine Scarpa’s overtaxed and underfulfilled Masha Chekhov, and John Dunleavy’s bumbling, self-absorbed Stanislavsky.
Also bewitching is Joe Wade’s lavish, ornate set, which provides a textured backdrop for the play’s decadent proceedings. Wade’s design makes full use of the Chopin Theatre’s unusually tall, deep space by scattering performers’ chairs around the stage, placing a large tree adorned with hanging lanterns on one side, and covering the door with a thin blanket of colorful dried leaves that extends to the first row of audience seats. Exploiting every nook and crevice of the stage, Wade creates the illusion of a lazy autumn evening in a rural setting.
But the real attraction of Seanachaí’s production is Kim Rubinstein’s direction. In her staging of “Old Times” last year at Court Theatre, she skillfully drew out every uncomfortable pause and awkward silence in Harold Pinter’s script to gut-wrenching length. “Chekhov in Yalta” represents a completely different set of challenges- like juggling a cast four times as big and working with a script brimming with potentially obscure Chekhov and Russian theater in-jokes. Rubinstein responds admirably by keeping the pacing brisk and the blocking tight, giving the script’s comic bin a madcap energy while exercising restraint in it’s more dramatic moments.
“Chekhov in Yalta” may borrow its characters from the dusty annals of history, but the play animates each with a vital spirit and purpose. In one of the show’s earliest scenes, Chekhov, Bunin, and Gorky engage in potentially dull small talk, dwelling on trivialities and griping about women – perhaps the last thing you’d expect from three of Russia’s most profound writers. And yet the idea of the trio spending a moment of leisure waxing philosophical on social ills and moral injustices is a lot less plausible. Stale, staid literary adaptations and Merchant-Ivory period pieces might be in vogue, but they rarely offer more than a single, blighting vision of history. Although “Chekhov in Yalta” takes place in the earliest years of the 1900s, it lives and breathes in the 1990s.
From the Chicago Tribune
Theater review, “Chekhov in Yalta”
By Chris Jones
As anyone who saw “And Neither Have I Wings to Fly…” will attest, the Seanachaí Theater Company is one of the best young ensembles in the city. Careful to avoid the traps of producing too much or too often, this unified group of serious young actors is capable of intellectually stimulating work of considerable depth.
So “Chekov in Yalta,” an ensemble-based and character-driven period drama written in 1981 by John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow, is a very good match for Seanachaí’s collective talents. Basing their work in historical truth and setting the play in 1900 outside Anton Chekov’s villa in Yalta, Driver and Haddow imagine the interchange between the titular Russian scribe and various visiting members of the Moscow Art Theatre (the original producer of Chekov’s famous plays).
Although such literary luminaries as Maxim Gorky (Mark L. Montgomery) are also house guests in Yalta, the principal conflict here is between Chekov (played by Thomas Vincent Kelly) and Konstantin Stanislavsky (John Dunleavy). The celebrated acting teacher had famous fights with the author of “The Seagull” Stanislavsky insisted that what Chekov thought were light comedies actually played best as intensely realistic dramas.
Add a flustered maid, Chekov’s declining health, various actors vying for upcoming roles, and assorted extramarital passions, and the result is, well, like a Chekov play.
That’s precisely the gently comic premise of this overly long show: the impassioned biographical reality of these turn-of-the-century arty Muscovites was very much like such dramas as “The Three Sisters” (which, in this play, Chekov has supposedly just completed).
If none of the above character names means anything to you, this rather smug play will probably not have much appeal. This is, for the most part, a metatheatrical in-joke: the dramatic amusement comes from watching the semifictional personages butt heads Chekovian-style, with each other and their collective historical legacy.
But for theater or Russian literature buffs, there’s a lot to admire in Kim Rubinstein’s lively and nicely sculptured production, which uses the considerable depth of the Chopin Theatre’s mainstage to great effect. Much of the acting–especially Dunleavy’s scrappy Stanislavsky, Montgomery’s passionate Gorky and Karen Tarjan as actress Olga Knipper–is extremely strong.