Antony and Cleopatra and Chekhov Three Ways

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A man urges his friend to leave their hotel room and go out on the town with these words — “You stay in here, it’s like a Chekhov play. Out there, it’s Shakespeare!”

That line is from The Treatment, a theatrical adaptation of a Chekhov short story at the Boston Court. Obviously it can’t be found in the original Chekhov. It was written by Richard Alger for Theatre Movement Bazaar’s production.

He’s pointing out that Chekhov’s characters often feel trapped and contained by their circumstances. Of course some Shakespeare characters feel that way too (Hamlet, anyone?), but Shakespeare wrote a lot of other characters who seize the day, who leave comfort zones in order to pursue great adventures.

You don’t have to look far right now to find both kinds of characters in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Chekhov adaptations.

Are you enjoying the current Chekhov festival? You’ve never heard of it? Well, maybe that’s because no one has organized or promoted it as a festival, and the theater companies didn’t coordinate anything with each other. But if you add The Treatment to the Fountain’s El Nogalar and Antaeus Company’s The Seagull — you’ve got an unofficial Chekhov festival, which will be supplemented next month by an Evidence Room co-production of Ivanov with the Odyssey.

Susan Angelo and Geoff Elliott in “Antony and Cleopatra”

As for Shakespeare, the list of current or recent small-theater productions includes three of the usual suspects — Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III. But the literally bigger news is that A Noise Within is finally tackling Antony and Cleopatra — which uses one of Shakespeare’s broadest canvases, as the action moves up and down the Mediterranean between Egypt and Rome, while the titular lovers take a series of giant-size risks.

A Noise Within had avoided Antony and Cleopatra at its previous and smaller Glendale theater, but now that the company is in expanded new digs in Pasadena, it was finally time to explore this panoramic story. And for those of us who were underwhelmed by A Noise Within’s first two productions in Pasadena last fall, Antony and Cleopatra is the long-awaited show that clearly justifies the move and its surrounding hoopla.

From those earlier productions, I knew that the Pasadena stage has a lot more backstage depth than the former Glendale stage, somewhat more breadth, and that it has twice the number of aisles from which actors can make dramatic entrances than could be found in Glendale. But Antony and Cleopatra emphasizes how much more vertical space the company has in Pasadena. Not only does the production rely on Tom Buderwitz’s elevated platform with independent entrances from the wings, but it employs swashbuckling actors hanging from ropes that are dangled from above, and it has a brief role for the auditorium’s little balcony.

William Dennis Hunt, Max Rosenak, Angela Gulner and Geoff Elliott

You can sense the exhilaration with which directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott seize these options, and these moments make dramatic sense in the volatile, topsy-turvy world of Antony and Cleopatra.

Of course, while these effects enhance the big picture, the play’s passionate love affair is what matters the most. This isn’t a rom-com between two young lovers — it’s one of the most scalding middle-aged affairs ever depicted in a theater. When I saw it on Sunday, the temperature outside was an unseasonal 90 degrees, but the figurative temperature on the stage was even higher.

Geoff Elliott’s Antony and Susan Angelo’s Cleopatra exude the charisma of stars, the self-assurance of royalty — and the sense that they can’t wait until they hop back in bed.

They’re surrounded by a strong retinue — Robertson Dean as a particularly insightful best friend for Antony, Max Rosenak as the callow and restless Octavius, William Dennis Hunt as the sometimes wise but sometimes doddering Lepidus, Christian Rummel as the scrappy pirate Pompey and Amin El Gamal as the eunuch Mardian, who adds unexpected small notes of both comedy and poignance.

 

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo

Antony and Cleopatra has more lines than any other Shakespeare play, so be prepared for nearly three hours at the theater. But Buderwitz’s lean set design allows swift movement between Egypt and Rome, while also permitting the small luxury of a pool of water at downstage center of the thrust stage — not to mention all those swinging ropes. The intermission seems to occur later in the text than in other stagings I’ve seen, but perhaps the break allows us to approach the intricacies of the final battles while relatively refreshed — at any rate, these scenes possess a clarity that is sometimes missing.

Antony and Cleopatra, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Thursday March 22, 8 pm; Friday March 23, 8 pm; Friday April 13, 8 pm; Saturday April 21, 2 and 8 pm; Sunday April 29, 2 and 7 pm; Friday May 4, 8 pm; Saturday May 12, 8 pm; Sunday May 13, 2 pm. www.ANoiseWithin.org. 626-356-3100 ext. 1.

***All Antony and Cleopatra production photos by Craig Schwartz

Jacob Sidney, Jake Eberle, Mark Skeens, Nich Kauffman and Mark Doerr in “The Treatment”

Also in Pasadena, at the Boston Court three miles west of A Noise Within, Theatre Movement Bazaar is giving Chekhov’s short story Ward No. 6 an unusual and unexpected Treatment.

I was a fan of Anton’s Uncles, a previous Theatre Movement Bazaar production in which choreographer Tina Kronis and writer Alger applied their distinctive style to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — in part, by eliminating all the female characters and allowing the men to dance, so the male characters could express their emotions less self-consciously.

The Treatment uses another all-male cast, but then Ward No. 6 — in contrast to Chekhov’s great plays — has only one female character, a housekeeper who is here played by a man in drag. Once again, the men dance, or at least move in rhythmic patterns.

The connection between the movement and material is weaker in The Treatment than it was in Anton’s Uncles. Here, the movement doesn’t add an additional means of expression to these characters so much as it adds an additional forum of expression for Kronis.

Mark Doerr, Mark Skeens, Nich Kauffman, Jake Everle and Jacob Sidney

The characters in The Treatment are, for the most part, either mental patients or bureaucrats. As written by Chekhov, most of the mental patients are so lost in their individual hells that the idea that they would or could dance in any coordinated effort — let alone in unison — feels contrived, and we don’t know enough about most of them for them to merit individual solos. The image of bureaucrats dancing in unison makes more sense, but the story is so focused on one particular doctor, his postal clerk friend and the most articulate of the mental patients that the group dances, while enlivening the action, also sometimes feel remote from it.

Alger and Kronis introduce another element of distance from the original short story by setting their adaptation in contemporary America. The costumes look relatively up-to-date, and current American references dot the script. Yet scattered among the lines that mention the likes of American Idol, going to the gym and kale’s properties as a wonder food, you’ll also hear about the government-run “asylum” where these patients are locked up. “Asylum”? In contemporary America?

Jacob Sidney, Mark Skeens, Jake Eberle and Nich Kauffman

Many Americans are under the impression that the problem with our mental health care isn’t that so many people are abandoned and neglected in government-run institutions but that government cutbacks have forced too many mentally ill people into the streets — and the ranks of the homeless. Nor is there much indication in The Treatment that its institutionalized characters people rely on the latest drugs — an essential factor in contemporary treatment of the mentally ill.

This disconnection between the original Chekhov and our present-day culture is also reflected in the been-there-done-that quality of the play’s central irony — that the line between the sane and the insane is oh so nebulous. Yes, we’re familiar with that notion, but fresher in our minds is the very firm line that can be drawn between, say, Gabrielle Giffords and her assailant. Anton’s Uncles, which didn’t attempt to update its source, had none of these problems.

 

The Treatment, Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes March 25. www.BostonCourt.org. 626-683-6883.

***All The Treatment production photos by Ed Krieger

Isabelle Ortega, Diana Romo and Yestta Gottesman in “El Nogalar”

LA’s other Chekhov update that’s still on the boards is El Nogalar at the Fountain. On the gender front, playwright Tanya Saracho goes in the opposite direction from that followed in Anton’s Uncles. She strips The Cherry Orchard of all but one of its male characters, leaving it with the mother, the two daughters and the maid, plus the one man who finally obtains the family estate and its adjacent (pecan) orchard. We hear references to the continuing service of one of the other men from the original — the old servant — but he doesn’t show up on stage.

A more significant change is that Saracho moves the action to a country home in the state of Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, in the present day. Not surprisingly, this raises the spectre of the drug wars. The pecan orchard mentioned in the title isn’t threatened by the general rise of the newly affluent middle-class, as it was in Chekhov’s original, as much as by the specific rise of the newly affluent drug-dealing class. This imparts a greater sense of menace and urgency to the family’s laborious decision-making than can be found in the original.

 

Justin Huen and Sabina Zuniga Varela

El Nogalar is short, intermissionless, and a little too stripped. It lacks the extra voice and dimension provided by Trofimov, the more politically aware graduate student, in the original. If Saracho wanted to retain her emphasis on the women, she probably could have found a way to turn this character into a woman. However, she does develop the role of the maid more than Chekhov did, and she introduces a sexual attraction between the one man on stage and more than one of the women, which adds a little heat.

Laurie Woolery’s staging feels a little cramped in the Fountain, but the performances are excellent, with especially notable turns by Yetta Gottesman as the mother — who’s almost as glamorous as Angelo’s Cleopatra — plus those by Justin Huen as the up-and-comer and Isabelle Ortega as the wonderfully harried older sister who secretly loves him.

El Nogalar, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Founatin Ave., east Hollywood. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sunday. www.FountainTheatre.com. 323-663-1525.

***All El Nogalar production photos by Ed Krieger

James Sutorius, Reba Waters, John Achorn, Avery Clyde, Gigi Bermingham and Adrian LaTourelle in “The Seagull”; Photo by Alexandra Goodman

Finally, for those who like their Chekhov straight-up, Antaeus has opened The Seagull. It’s double cast as usual at Antaeus, and I’ve seen only one of the two casts, so I’ll postpone any comment I might make about performances. But the translation by Paul Schmidt is thoroughly clear and sharp for contemporary audiences without sounding trendy, and the staging by Andrew J. Traister hits most of the comedy and the melancholy simultaneously — which is ideal for Chekhov.

The Seagull, Antaeus Company at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes April 15. www.Antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.