Teaching Chekhov To Recite The Havdalah (Reviews in The Jewish Press and The Sentinel)

From The Jewish Press (“America’s Largest Jewish Independent Weekly”)
July 15, 2009 – by Menachem Wecker
(click here to read article with accompanying show photographs)

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a troupe of Athenian actors, “rude mechanicals” according to the sprite Puck, meets in the woods to rehearse “the most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.” Puck frustrates the efforts of Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, and Starveling to practice when he turns Bottom into a donkey. “If he come not, then the play is marred: it goes not forward, doth it?” worries Flute, but in the end the play-within-a-play transpires on schedule, with all its absurd disclaimers designed not to frighten the court ladies.

The play-within-a-play in The Seagull on 16th Street presents a monologue from the Sabbath Queen, responding to the question, “What will life be like for the Jewish people in 200,000 years?” Like the Pyramus and Thisby production, the vision of Judaism projected 200 millennia into the future elicits a barrage of taunts from the audience. But the playwright of the latter, Konstantin Treplev (Alexander Strain), is so troubled by the play’s reception that he calls for a premature curtain, truncating the theatrical flop intended to launch a new Jewish theater.

The Theater J production takes a lot of risks. That statement is worth repeating. Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director, has essentially taken a play by a non-Jew, Chekhov, which had no Jewish content whatsoever (the closest things to religion are references to “sacred art,” “high-priests of art,” and battles with Satan, according to the translation I found on Project Gutenberg) and infused it with Jewish content, themes, and songs from the American rock band R.E.M. Where Chekhov refers to “antediluvians,” Theater J amends, “people from before Noah’s ark,” and Chekhov’s stagehand Jacob becomes Yakov in Roth’s script. When Treplev’s mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina (Naomi Jacobson), denounces his art as “decadent rubbish,” Theater J renders it “Hebraic tripe,” and later when Chekhov has Treplev call his mother a “Miser!” to which she retaliates with “Rag-bag!” Theater J offers the following exchange:

TREPLEV: Has-Been.
ARKADINA: Beggar! Jew! Nonentity!

Roth’s script also replaces the esoteric symbols in Treplev’s play with the Havdalah ceremony. All this Jewishness in Chekhov’s play has led to some reviewers, like Monica Shores of the influential blog DCist.com, to suggest that the play does not work with its new Jewish identity. Admitting that a Jewish Treplev is an “interesting idea,” Shores says the original play is so dense to begin with, that Theater J’s version “threatens to buckle under the weight of more conflict.” Indeed, Medvedenko (Mark Krawczyk) accuses Treplev in the play of “importing a Western European demographic and grafting it onto an Eastern European reality.”

I respectfully disagree. I think Chekhov reads quite well with Treplev announcing the play with a shofar, adding, “We’re beginning the way our ancient forefathers called their flock into battle. With our very own Call to Art! And Worship! To Introspection!” This is just the sort of thing one would expect of the young, tortured artist, who delights in translating the ritual for the benefit of those “who need their Hebrew rituals Anglicized:” “The Great Union/Division Synthesis.”

Treplev’s play receives the same criticisms that Theater J seems to be receiving, and it is worth noting that audiences ridiculed Chekhov’s original Seagull production. (to keep reading the review, click here)

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Published on: Wednesday, July 08, 2009
By David Cannon, Sentinel Arts Critic

Poor Anton Chekhov. Chekhov became famous when top Russian directors staged his plays but the writer never totally liked the productions. You see, Chekov thought of his plays as comedies while directors kept turning them into intimate dramas. While hardly Neil Simon, Chekhov is also not the dreary realist that so many directors turn him into.

Finding the humor in Chekhov is one of the many things that make the current production of The Seagull down at Theater J so interesting. First of all, there is nothing particularly Jewish about the script and Theater J is better known for modern plays, not works from the end of the 19th century. This quite successful Seagull is something of a breakthrough for the group, while providing an interesting new lens on this familiar work. (click here to keep reading)