‘Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories’ at The Mint Theatre, Two Masters’ Perspectives of Love, Adapted by Miles Malleson
“One of the most diversified talents in the British theatre,” Miles Malleson (1888-1969) was enamored of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, who had formed a bond in the latter years of their lives; Chekhov, the younger pre-deceased Tolstoy, the elder by six years–Tolstoy died in 1910. Admiration of these two great Russian writers inspired Malleson to create theatrical adaptations of short stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov. From Tolstoy’s parable “What Men Live By” Malleson adapted Michael. From Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” Malleson configured The Artist.
The Mint Theatre Company has featured Malleson’s plays before (i.e. Unfaithfully Yours) considering Malleson to be a playwright worthy of recalling to our social theatrical remembrance. In the first offering of the season, The Mint has coupled the British playwright’s dramatic adaptations of Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s one acts because their themes relate to love. In The Artist, directed by Jonathan Banks, Chekhov via Malleson ironically presents romantic love that never has the opportunity to blossom and rejuvenate, but is cut off before its time. In Michael directed by Jane Shaw, Tolstoy via Malleson uncovers truths related to the nature and power of agape love. The Mint Theatre Company’s production of Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories is currently at Theatre Row.
Presenting The Artist and Michael back-to-back offers the audience the opportunity to examine how each of the plays evokes themes about love, spirituality, redemption and revelation. Additionally, one identifies the contrasting social classes represented by the setting and characters of each one act. Each play identifies the perspective of the writers who were interested about what was accessible to the Russian social classes. Tolstoy, a nobleman often wrote about the worthiness of the lower classes who are represented by the characters in Michael. On the other hand Chekhov, whose grandfather was a serf, centered his greatest works on Russian gentry on the brink of an era of change (The Russian Revolution).
In keeping with Chekhov’s proclivities, The Artist takes place on a Russian estate run by a fine, elevated family of women who are intellectual and well regarded. These include the Mother (Katie Firth) and her two daughters. The elder daughter is the teacher Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) who is heavily involved with helping improve the status of the peasants. The youngest is the teenage dreamer Genya (Anna Lentz). An artist Nicov (portrayed by Alexander Sokovikov) visits often and the play opens as he paints his landscape while he interacts with Genya who listens to his philosophical justification of the importance of art over social reformation of the peasant class. Nicov and Lidia who represent antithetical views, argue continually. Thus, Nicov finds Genya’s unformed, youthful attentiveness an entrancement over Lidia’s disparagement of the useless function of Nicov’s art.
The characterizations of Nicov and Genya are reminiscent of Chekhov’s characters from his full-length plays, absent the conflict and tensions inherent in Chekhov’s full formed works. Malleson’s characterizations in The Artist are lukewarm and superficial. There is little heat and light as their should be when Nicov argues with Lidia to set up the drama and tension when he expresses his justifications to a sympathetic Genya with whom he falls in love and who returns his love.
The low-key tension and conflict of Malleson’s characterization is not helped by the lackluster performances. The spark of fire between Genya and Nicov that prompts the sardonic ending and Nicov’s felt and empathetic loss is missing. Nicov’s rant as delivered by Sokovikov is telling; Sokovikov does much of the heavy lifting with authentic responses from Katie Firth. Brittany Anikka Liu as the caring and forceful teacher/reformer in conflict with Nicov should be brighter, more ironic. Their interplay could even be darkly humorous. However, the love between Genya and Nicov is not believable. Thus, the impact of the Chekhovian sardonic ending is rendered impotent.
Michael directed by Sound Designer Jane Shaw, making her directorial debut, employs more fluid light and music as the setting reverts to a peasant’s hut and the characters sing. The backdrop shifts. In The Artist, it is a painted tree filled with autumn leaves, signifying the season and symbolism of Nicov’s waning years. In Michael the design becomes the long, intricate white roots (interestingly lighting by Matthew Richards) of the tree. The symbolism of the lower classes is perhaps being suggested. It is the underclass (the tree’s roots) that supports and is the lifeblood of the middle and upper classes (the trunk, branches, leaves). Without the roots of the peasant class from which all humanity has derived, the upper classes can’t be sustained.
In Michael, the conflict arises when a homeless beggar (Malik Reed) is brought in by Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) and the wife (Katie Firth) must decide whether he should stay or be thrown out because they have barely enough for themselves and Aniuska (Vinie Burrows). The decision is made to let him stay. The scene shifts to a year later. We see the family is being sustained by Michael, the beggar who does not speak because he works as a cobbler for the peasant family. When a Russian Nobleman (Alexander Sokovikov) arrives and requires boots, the circumstances change. Michael makes a mistake with the boots, but it turns out to be a prescient action. That evening his learning is complete and finally Michael reveals who he is, why he is there and what he has learned about pity and empathy which is agape love. It is what we should live by.
The performances in Michael adhered more completely. Reed’s performance was soundly delivered undergirded by the ensemble. Malleson’s adaptation of the Tolstoy short story provided more dramatic tension and mystery. The staging and props added interest to engage the audience more completely, along with Oana Botez’s variable costuming, i.e. the nobleman’s coat and hat contrasted with the peasants’ outfits.
The pairing of the two one acts by the Russian writers who were contemporaries via Malleson is an enlightened decision if imperfectly rendered. It is the landed gentry in The Artist who remain unfulfilled by love, in effect harming the artist. They deprive him of rejuvenating love, and negatively impact his purpose to bring uplifting pleasure with his art. In Michael, the affirmation of the goodness of the peasant class (a Christian precept in the Beatitudes) is brought to them by Michael. He shares with them the wisdom that they have received through empathy/pity. It is the vitality of agape love that will sustain them.
In contrasting the two classes, the landed gentry is much worse off than the peasant class, a notion that Nicov suggests to Lidia to no avail. Lidia is convinced that (as in later years during the didactic polemic of the revolution) reform is imperative, art is useless. Meanwhile, the reforms and revolutions as they came did great harm which persists (one might argue) to this day. On the other hand making art is a necessity for the middle and upper classes to help them understand empathy and love, something the blessed poor, according to Tolstoy, are ready to receive and do take in as,the very potency which sustains them.
Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories runs until 14th March at Theatre Row (42nd Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Listed are the creative team: Roger Hanna (sets) Oana Botez (costumes) Matthew Richards (lights) Jane Shaw (original music and sound) Natalie carney (props).
The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.
In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!
The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.
One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.
After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.
The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.
When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.
However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.
His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!
Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”
For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.
Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.
The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.
The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)
Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!