Sunday, April 17, 2011

Checking in with Chekhov

When a person lacks visual acuity, the imagination can find wonderful ways to play tricks on the mind. In Jean-Claude Rozec's endearing short entitled Specky Four-Eyes (which will be screened at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival) a child diagnosed with a severe case of myopia is fitted with glasses that remove all the magic from Arnaud's limited vision. Although the following clip has Spanish surtitles, you won't have much trouble following the film and appreciating Arnaud's vivid imagination.

* * * * * * * * *
If only Henry Tome (Keanu Reeves) had that much going on inside his head. The protagonist of Henry's Crime is, at best, a romantic dullard who loses his job as a toll-taker and gets manipulated into being the getaway driver for an old friend's bank heist.

Henry Tome (Keanu Reeves) at work in the toll booth

In a classic moment from the 1975 hit musical, A Chorus Line, one of the dancers auditioning for a job remarks that "To die in Buffalo is redundant." The same could be said about Malcolm Venville's film which, despite a script that seems to have been built with index cards, suffers from an artistic form of anemia.

After being sent to jail, Henry ends up sharing a cell with Max Saltzman (James Caan), a prison lifer who has no desire to be released. In the meantime, Henry's wife, Debbie (Judy Greer), finds herself another man and becomes pregnant. Throughout this, Henry never shows the slightest trace of anger, instead perhaps feeling relieved that other peoples' actions have saved him from the tiresome burden of making decisions.

Shortly before being released from prison, Henry becomes infatuated with the idea that as long as he's served the time, he might as well go ahead and commit the crime. Upon returning to civilization, he convinces Max to help him rob the bank using some hidden tunnels that long ago connected the bank's vault to the theatre located across a back alley.

In order to gain access to the theatre, Henry joins a small community theatre group during their rehearsals for a production of Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard. Playing the lead role of Mme. Ranevskaya is the temperamental actress (Vera Farmiga) who almost ran Henry over with her car (and whom he recognizes from an ad on television). By opening night, Henry is more in love with Julie and Chekhov than with the idea of robbing the bank. As Venville explains:
The Cherry Orchard is known as a drama but originally Chekhov wrote it as a comedy. Stanislavski directed the first production of the play in Russia as a tragedy, which apparently chagrined poor Chekhov no end. In our movie, the play is a tragedy and the charm of the play is evident with the interplay of the two lovers in the movie (Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga) brought together by the need to rob a bank. For those unfamiliar with the play, it needed to be easily comprehended and for those familiar with Madame Ranevskaya and Lophakin, they could hopefully enjoy the subtle mirroring between art and life in the script that Sacha Gervasi created."

The details of the plot in Henry's Crime proved far less interesting to me than the rehearsal and backstage scenes for The Cherry Orchard. They probably will to you, too. Despite a well-intentioned script and Venville's strong directorial touch, this is at best an extremely modest and slightly dull film that might entertain people on long flights. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Over at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Chekhov is getting first-class treatment with a new production of Three Sisters that is a shared effort with the Yale Repertory Theatre. Playwright Sarah Ruhl has reunited with director Les Waters to stage Chekhov's dramedy on the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage, where it achieves a greater sense of intimacy than it might on a proscenium stage.

Chebutykin (James Carpenter), Solyony (Sam Breslin Wright),
and Anfisa (Barbara Oliver) in Berkeley Rep's new production
of Three Sisters (Photo by:

With a unit set designed by Annie Smart and costumes by Ilona Somogyi, this production delivered a big surprise to me. Although I had studied Three Sisters in college, the only time I had seen it onstage was during the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's operatic treatment of Three Sisters at Opera Columbus on March 13, 1986.

Some 25 years later, I've had a lot more life experience and am much better equipped to appreciate Chekhov's writing. While one expects to hear a lot of pining about what will happen "when we get to Moscow," Ruhl's version shifts the balances among characters quite nicely.
  • Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) is the most practical of the three sisters.
  • Masha's (Natalia Payne) contempt for her husband, Kulygin (Keith Reddin) -- the man she married when she was just 18 -- offers a sharp contrast to her barely-contained passion for the older soldier, Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie).
  • The youngest sister, Irina (Heather Wood), starts off as the most innocent and ends up a much sadder and wiser woman.
Masha (Natalia Payne), Irina (Heather Wood) and
Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) are Chekhov's Three Sisters
in Sarah Ruhl's new adaptation. (Photo by:

However, it was the portrayal of the social-climbing Natasha (Emily Kitchens) that impressed me the most. A recent graduate of A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts program, Kitchens continues to demonstrate an uncanny ability to draw audiences in with her large eyes and complex characterizations. Her transition from an insecure young woman to the pompous, narcissistic wife of Andrei (the superb Alex Moggridge), transforms her into the greedy, condescending sister-in-law from hell.

Emily Kitchens (Natasha), Wendy Rich Stetson (Olga), and
Heather Wood (Irina) in Three Sisters (Photo by:

I was particularly impressed by the work of James Carpenter as the idiotic bureaucrat, Chebutykin, Thomas Jay Ryan as the aging doctor, Tuzenbach, and Bruce McKenzie's Vershinin. Solid support came from Sam Breslin Wright (Solyony), Barbara Oliver (Anfisa) and Richard Farrell (Ferapont).

These days, it's rare to see a large ensemble cast so beautifully directed. Performances of Three Sisters continue at Berkeley Rep through May 22.  You can order tickets here.

No comments: