Light in the Dark: Chekhov Shorts
nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
December 2, 2009
Theatre HAN presents two of Chekhov's short plays, Swan Song and The Bear, with live performances of a traditional Korean dance and Pamina's aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute, under the direction of Frederick Waggoner. As stated in their program, this isn't a typical night of Chekhov; Theatre HAN invites you to experience a new Chekhovian stage where the East meets West to celebrate life, love, loss, and death as they are explored in Chekhov's two works.
The evening begins with Master Sue-Yeon Park in "Salpuri-chum," a traditional Korean dance piece performed to appease dead spirits and lead them to heaven. On a bare stage, with transparent white sheets hung to frame it, Park floats to the rhythm of a beating drum. Dressed in a long white traditional dress, which covers her feet, she appears to be moving above the ground beneath her, as a swan sent to warn us of imminent death. As written in the program, "Salpuri-chum" is "one of the most powerful artistic expressions of the Korean sense of han, a mixture of grief and longing." Park's face, like a porcelain doll, while expressionless, seems to express so much—she is riveting to watch, even in stillness.
As she slowly makes her departure, a man walks onto the stage, almost by mistake. What is he doing there? He asks himself, and we ask ourselves. What follows is Chekhov's Swan Song, named after the sound a mute swan makes before dying, delivered as a speech to an empty stage by the elderly actor Vasily Vasilich Svetlovidov, who confronts the loss of his youth, his fame, and his reputation. His words express devastation, defeat, and resolve—they are so extreme you want to laugh, but the actor, L.B. Williams, isn't funny. I enjoyed listening to what Chekhov wrote, but I didn't empathize with the character enough. At times Williams plays Vasily too casually and at other times too emphatically. Williams is very natural and real on stage, but he seems to miss some major notes; the color from his voice is missing. Nikita Ivanich, who appears on stage to comfort Vasily, is still perplexing to me, as I never understood what he was doing there. As a result, the relationship between Vasily and Nikita remains unclear.
Following Swan Song is a moving performance of Pamina's aria from The Magic Flute, sung beautifully by Seung Hee Lee, accompanied by Moon Young Yang on the piano. The feeling of loss evoked by Lee's performance is fitting and sets the mood for the opening of The Bear, in which the widow Yelena Ivanovna Popova lies across a couch dressed in a long black dress (which matches the white dress worn by Park) mourning her husband.
The Bear is the highlight of the evening. Yelena, who grieves over her husband in the comfort of her faithful servant Luka, has a surprise visit from Grigory Stepanovich Smirnoff, who demands she pay a debt owed to him by her husband. Yelena refuses to pay, and chaos ensues. Mark Thomas as Smirnoff—"The Bear"—is so charming and funny, and, even with his Southern twang, captures the essence and humor of Chekhov. After all, this is one of Chekhov's vaudevilles. Alice Oh, who plays Yelena, and Frederico Trigo as Luka also have their moments. The commitment from each actor is what makes this piece work so well. There isn't a second where we don't believe or feel what the characters are experiencing. But we never stop laughing at the absurdity of it all.