‘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).