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Anton Chekhov seems to meet Samuel Beckett in Kama Ginkas’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s short story Lady with a Lapdog, currently running on the mainstage at the American Repertory Theatre (ART). The play, which Ginkas wrote, directed and produced, is an absurdist spectacle far removed from the emotional starkness and dry humor typical of Chekhovian productions. The powerful love story is narrated by characters who constantly pause mid-sentence, interrupted at arbitrary intervals by two clowns in blue and white striped stockings and punctuated by the ardent desire of the lovers to pour sand on each other.
The difference between Chekhov’s work and Ginkas’s adaptation is all the more striking because the dialogue of the play, save for the clowns’ episodes, is a word-for-word transcription of the entire Chekhov story. The protagonists, Dmitry Gurov (Stephen Pelinksi) and Anna Sergeyevna (Elisabeth Waterston), serve as narrators, acting out their words and emotions as the play unfolds. This technique might sound literary and dry—but in fact it works surprisingly well, for the actors are lacking enough in self-conscious enough to pull it off.
The director must have realized that reading a twenty-page short story aloud, even with pauses for action, cannot fill up two hours. The play opens as Gurov and Anna, the lady with the lapdog, meet and cheat on their respective spouses while vacationing at Yalta; Gurov is disgusted that Anna takes the affair so seriously, but after the pair return to their respective families, he is unable to forget her, seeks her out, and they continue their affair in secret, clinging to it desperately as the one happy element in their lives.
Unfortunately, this is hardly enough to sustain a play, which has to be why almost every line of dialogue is repeated three or four times, why the actors take three-second pauses two or three times in every sentence and why there are frequent minute-long intervals devoted to a character’s getting dressed or lighting lanterns. A line like “the water had a soft lilac glow” takes about thirty seconds for the actors to deliver.
It is impossible to exaggerate the agonizing effect this slowness has on the production. My companion started looking at his watch at the half-hour mark, and toward the close of the play I sympathized with the woman behind me who whispered impatiently, “He doesn’t know how to end it.”
The need to pad the running time can also have been the only explanation for the presence of the two gentlemen sunbathers (Trey Burvant and Robert Olinger), clowns who perform extremely broad and pointedly irrelevant routines, which include dancing, reciting poetry, acting as extras, pouring water on each other, harassing the protagonists and telling audience members to be glad that life isn’t worse than it is. They are on stage for about half the play, and yet they have nothing to do with the it; their only function is comic relief. At best, they are superfluous and occasionally annoying, but when the action becomes serious, their incessant gaiety distracts from the relationship of the lovers, making the plight seem trivial and irrelevant.
All this is not to say that the production has no good qualities. The set, designed by Sergey Barkhin, is too busy but is creatively employed; a single piece of scenery, such as a large gray drop cloth, variously becomes a bed sheet, a snowbank and hotel upholstery. The music, composed by Leonid Desyatnikov, is catchy if far too loud. Michael Chybowski, the lighting designer, creates beautiful scenes of glowing parasols, gleaming water and golden dust against the black background of the stage. The actors, especially Waterston as the beautiful and fiercely determined young adulteress, are all competent, though their frenetic energy is not enough to ward off the interminable boredom that the slow-moving staging imposes. Lady With a Lapdog also features what has to be one of the most bizarre and entertaining sex scenes in the history of theater, in which Gurov copulates with Anna by throwing sand on her while sitting atop a ladder halfway across the stage.
On the whole, Chekhov lovers and prospective audience members would save time, money and patience by skipping this play and sitting down to read the original short story instead of enduring this version. Ginkas’s show would have been a good 30-minute skit but makes for a frustrating play.
—Lady With a Lapdog runs through October 11 on the Loeb Mainstage.
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