Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull' has an Irish accent
There are no shining samovars at the Culture Project, where Trudie Styler is opening tonight in an Irish transposition of Anton Chekhov's profoundly Russian 1895 tragicomedy, "The Seagull."
There were no Jews in last summer's Asian-American revival of "Awake and Sing!," Clifford Odets' deeply Jewish 1935 drama about a Depression-era family in the Bronx.
And, though there is still the starkly neutral country road in the "Waiting for Godot" that closes today at the Castillo Theatre, Samuel Beckett's 1953 existential masterpiece is bathed in the ancestral, historically resonant sounds of Yiddish.
The head spins, or at least the world turns. For reasons that clearly transcend the vandalism of novelty, we are being asked to look beyond the genetic makeup that forms the foundations of these classics and the voices of these playwrights.
Accepting these scrambled ethnicities may be more challenging than the now-familiar demands of nontraditional casting. To further confuse the coincidence, each project has its own motivations, its own reason or reasons for traveling to foreign theatrical lands.
For the National Asian American Theater Company, the object since 1989 has been to give marginalized actors a crack at all kinds of major theatrical literature. But as Mia Katigbak, its artistic director, told The Jewish Week in August, the blunt, passionate language of the Jewish characters gave actors the chance to work counter to the "inscrutable, unemotional, quiet, passive and submissive" Asian stereotypes. It "encourages people to look at Asians in a different way."
For the New Yiddish Rep, what is believed to be the first-ever Yiddish "Godot" adheres strictly to Beckett's text (with English and Russian supertitles), but, according to Romanian director Moshe Yassur, "it transmits an additional 'inner interpretation' through the language. "We were forced into suffering for so many years," he told me in a phone interview. "The language took on a patina of crying and laughing at the same time."
Reasons for this "Seagull" are comparatively straightforward. After a recent rehearsal at the downtown theater, British director Max Stafford-Clark explained how Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy came to catapult Chekhov out of late 19th century Russia.
It happened in 1981, during Stafford-Clark's extraordinary years developing new plays as artistic director of London's Royal Court. Despite the theater's reputation for edgy new work, he decided to explore a classic in a new way.
"Chekhov in England would be just lawns and cups of tea," he told me, though Styler, swanning comfortably in a teeny-waisted 19th century costume with a tuxedo front and bustle, confided that there still is "lots of tea."
Stafford-Clark continued, "Ireland at the same time was emotionally loaded and quite politically similar." He mentioned the National Land League, a 19th century tenant-farmer movement that paralleled the encroaching sense of revolution that hangs over all of Chekhov's landed gentry. "Besides," he continued, "there's an emotional freedom about the Irish that the English no longer have. And the melodramatic element in Chekhov has an affinity with Irish theatrical tradition."
A New York revival of that production was the lure that has brought Styler here for her American stage debut in a leading role. She did perform at the Culture Project as one of the revolving casts in the anti-death-penalty docudrama, "The Exonerated," and she and her husband, Sting, played Clara and Robert Schumann in a charity reading of "Twin Spirits" at Lincoln Center in 2010. (Sting, meanwhile, has been around the corner at the Public Theater, doing benefit performances of his new album, "The Last Ship," which he is developing into a Broadway musical.)
She plays Arkadina, the vain, flamboyant, manipulative actress-mother whose visit to her family country estate incites a crowded household of rapture, melancholy and missed emotions. And, for all Styler's human-rights and environmental activism, she was first an actress and is easing back to it again. She studied at Bristol Old Vic and belonged to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where Stafford-Clark remembers admiring her in a play called "Naked Robots."
They did not work together, however, until 2011, when he directed her in London in "A Dish of Tea with Dr. Johnson." A workshop of "Seagull" followed in New York and now the production, which includes Alan Cox (son of Scottish actor Brian) and Amanda Quaid (daughter of American actor Randy).
I asked Stafford-Clark whether he had heard about the Yiddish "Godot." "Beckett would never have approved," he said.
Before his death in 1989, the playwright and his agents were adamant about changes to his work. But Yassur, who was a directing student in Paris while Beckett and Eugène Ionesco were still there, insists that Beckett's directions are followed "to the letter." He does say, however, that "in Yiddish, the play takes on another dimension."
Shane Baker translated from both the English and French texts. He also plays Vladimir, one of the two hoboes who, day after identical day, wait for a stranger named Godot. To emphasize the different kinds of Yiddish that evolved over the years in Europe and Eastern Europe, Vladimir speaks in a Polish-inflected Yiddish, while Estragon's accent is more Lithuanian.
As Yassur sees the play and life, "human beings know exactly their predicament. Their strength is to know that end and yet wake up and go to work and come back home. What courage it takes to confront that with open eyes."
In other words, despite language and nationality, samovars or just tea, the best theater is also universal.