At Mass MoCA: Chekhov all shook up
"Do you have your skateboard, Eliza?"
It's not your typical prop for a Chekhov play, but this isn't your typical Chekhov. In fact, though the characters and situations spring directly from the original author's words, it's not quite an adaptation, either.
"If someone comes in and thinks they're seeing ‘Seagull' but set on the moon" they'll be disappointed, director and credited writer Tina Satter says afterwards. "We contemporize it and put it inside a snow globe and shake it up. I think of it as a response to, a deconstruction of, Chekhov's ‘Seagull.'"
This re-imagining, dubbed "Seagull (Thinking Of You)," juxtaposes the original play text with material from Chekhov's letters, scholarly writing on his work, contemporary language authored by Satter, and the occasional inside reference to historical productions of the play.
A co-production of Satter's New York City-based Half Straddle troupe and its neighbors, Performance Space 122 and the New Ohio Theatre, it plays at Mass MoCA on Saturday evening after a weeklong residency. From here, "Seagull (Thinking of You)" heads back to New York for its world premiere in January as part of PS122's COIL festival.
Fans of Half Straddle wouldn't be completely out of line if they showed up expecting that extraterrestrial "Seagull" Satter hypothesized. Under her artistic directorship, with a small company of actors (four of the five in this weekend's performance are longtime regulars) and resident composer Chris Giarmo, who penned a "contemporary Russian folk metal" score here, Half Straddle's plays often feature unexpected juxtapositions and re-contextualization of various cultural signifiers and memes, from TV hospital drama to small-town football to werewolves.
Tightly wound potboilers, they are not.
"When it works, I think it's because we -- aesthetically and with the language and the performance style -- it feels like a really specific place and you can let go of worrying maybe of needing the satisfying thing of a followed-through plot, or a conclusion in that sense," Satter says, after a few hours of working out lighting cues for the play.
The approach, and the familiarity among these frequent collaborators, has led to the development of a shared physical language.
"I have a pretty specific thing I'm looking for,' she says. "We don't have any psychological acting, so we don't usually really have a plot we're following. So there's all these other ways we're trying to distill out meaning -- weird gestures, encoded stuff. We build in stuff that feels instinctively right but has no other reason to happen."
She speaks quickly, with ideas flowing into each other, which seems a model for the rehearsals she leads and the work itself. (At one point she exclaims, "I'm bipolar!" and an actor responds good-naturedly from stage, "No argument from me.")
Chekhov's "The Seagull" is peopled with actors and writers, and includes a play-within-a-play. When Satter saw a 2008 Broadway production, she immediately felt resonances with her experience in the web of New York theater people.
"I realized it was really about artists -- writers and wannabe writers, and actors and wannabe actors. Even the side characters, they sit around and talk about shows they saw in the past," she explains.
"It felt really personal to our world of a theater company, and being deep in this stew of a downtown New York theater scene. All we do is see the shows of our friends or talk about our own work all of us having these deeply dysfunctional, obsessed-with-each-other's-work relationships. This is the wonderful mess where we put this in."
This new piece has delicious fun with the relationship between life onstage and off, with characters sometimes confusing the boundaries between the two. "I am stepping outside of our characters in this play to tell you that I hate you," one player says to another at one point.
Another "way into" the play for Satter, she says, was her recognition of the adolescent concerns of central character Nina. Though the social milieu was entirely different, she felt this daughter of a Russian landowner was speaking a language to which she related. "It's like this weird, adolescent girl magic, which is sort of the world I traffic in with the plays I make."
One of several worlds, perhaps -- co-existing easily or uneasily, as the case may be.
"We're under it and in it and all around this play," she says of Chekhov's original, "and it's now all around our play."
On the Stage:
What: "Seagull (Thinking of You)"
Who: Half Straddle and PS 122
When: 8 p.m., Saturday
Where: Mass MoCA, Hunter Center, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams
How: (413) 662-2111; www.massmoca.org; or box office
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