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    Book Review: ‘Tom Lake,’ by Ann Patchett

    This time the celebrated novelist spins the cozy tale of a former actress, her three daughters and their rueful memories. There’s a cherry orchard, too.Are you in possession of a hammock? A creaky old porch swing? A bay window with built-in seating? If not, Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Tom Lake,” will situate you there mentally. I wouldn’t be surprised if it put your fitness tracker on the fritz, even if you amble around listening to Meryl Streep read the audio version.This author is such a decorated and beloved figure in American letters — spinning out novels, memoirs and essays like so many multicolored silks; opening an independent bookstore in Nashville to fight the Amazon anaconda; even helping care for Tom Hanks’s cancer-stricken personal assistant — that I sometimes think of her as Aunt Patchett.Patchett’s actual family of origin was complicated, as she made explicit after the 2016 publication of the semi-autobiographical “Commonwealth.” “The Dutch House” (2019), which had a wicked stepmother, did not stray far from the idea that living with relatives can be messy and hellish.With “Tom Lake,” she treats us — and perhaps herself — to a vision of a family beautifully, bucolically simple: nuclear, in its pre-bomb meaning.Like some guardian angel in the sky, Anton Chekhov hovers over this story, which features three sisters in their 20s and is set on their parents’ cherry orchard(albeit in northern Michigan during the recent pandemic, not the tuberculosis-torn Russian provinces). But Thornton Wilder is driving the tractor.Sequestered not unhappily in lockdown, the sisters’ mother, Lara (she dropped a “u” after reading “Doctor Zhivago”), is telling them, after tiring days in the field, about her long-ago, short-lived career as an actress, whose highlight was starring as Emily Gibbs, the tragic heroine of Wilder’s enduringly popular piece of Americana, “Our Town.”In flashbacks we learn she played Emily in both high school and college in New Hampshire, also home to the play’s fictional Grover’s Corners. Then, after a brief and disorienting detour to Hollywood, she returns to the role in summer stock at a theater company, the titular Tom Lake, that happened to be nearish the orchard.“Even hawking Diet Dr Pepper I was Emily, because she was the only thing I knew how to do,” Lara realized after starting rehearsals to play Mae in Sam Shepard’s rather less innocent “Fool for Love.” “I had the range of a box turtle. I was excellent, as long as no one moved me.” Emily is as important to her as Barbie, apparently, was to so many others: a character so formative, she provides the name for Lara’s firstborn.Lara’s Emily doesn’t aspire to be an actress — that particular affliction has befallen the youngest daughter, Nell, named for Lara’s seamstress grandmother — but she is powerfully fixated on her mother’s former co-star and ex-boyfriend: one Peter Duke, who played Emily Webb’s father at Tom Lake.“Duke,” as everyone calls him, goes on to become a huge celebrity, enchanting the kiddies in a movie musical called “The Popcorn King,” singing and dancing on a floor covered with kernels, then becoming a Serious Actor, winning an Oscar and inevitably descending into addiction. As a teen, Lara’s Emily grows convinced he, not Lara’s hardworking fruit-farmer husband, was her father, and Patchett drops in enough subtle commonalities — their hair, a certain physical rubberiness (“whoever installed her interior compass put the magnet in upside down”) — that the reader is left in genuine suspense about whether it’s true.But the larger theme is that it may not matter: Our children inherit the full range of our experience, as much as genetic traits.“Tom Lake” isn’t a prudish novel — the flashbacks are to the 1980s, when parents hovered a lot less — but it is a resolutely folksy, cozy one, a thing of pies and quilts and nettlesome goats and a middle child named Maisie after the other grandmother. (Lara, in her late 50s up there in rural Michigan, is a demographic anomaly, leaving so many of her old friends in the deep fog of memory without trying to hunt them down on Facebook.) Nell senior had a sewing business and countrified sayings appear here like dropped stitches. You could have knocked me over with a feather!Idle hands? We all know whose workshop they are. You “can’t swing a cat” without hitting a castle, in Scotland.Two performances of Wilder’s Stage Manager are “as different as chalk and cheese.”But Patchett is also, as always, slyly needlepointing her own pillowcase mottos. “There is no explaining this simple truth about life: You will forget much of it.” “Sweet cherries must be picked today and every day until they’re gone.” “Swimming is the reset button.” This last spoken by a lithe and beautiful Black character named Pallace — whose integration into the theatrical utopia seems just a tad too easy.“Tom Lake” is a quiet and reassuring book, not a rabble-rouser. It’s highly conscious of Emily Gibbs’s speech about human failure to appreciate the little things, the Stage Manager’s line about the earth “straining away all the time to make something of itself,” and of the ravages to that earth. Domestic contentment is its North Star, generational continuity its reliable moon. Only a cynic could resist lying down on a nice soft blanket to marvel at Patchett’s twinkling planetarium.TOM LAKE | By Ann Patchett | 320 pp. | HarperCollins | $30 More

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    ‘Uncle Vanya’ Review: Candlelit With a High-Wattage Cast

    Unrequited love swirls through this prestige-cast production of Anton Chekhov’s play, in a Manhattan loft.Leaning close in the flickering candlelight, Sonya and the man who makes her stomach flutter share a sneaky midnight snack. He is Astrov, her houseguest, and he is frankly a bit of a mess — drinks too much, is in fact drunk at the moment. He is also endearingly odd and smart and sweet, an eco-nerd physician who’s sending her some incredibly mixed signals.“We’re all alone here,” he says, sotto voce. “We can be honest with each other.”It is a scene so beguiling, so full of crushy hope on one side and obliviousness (or is it?) on the other, that it’s like watching Laura and the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie.” But this is “Uncle Vanya,” and if Chekhov has never before made you want to match-make a couple of his characters on Tinder, this version — directed by Jack Serio in a loft in the Flatiron District of Manhattan — just might.“You’re a beautiful human being, more than anybody I know,” Sonya tells Astrov, and because she is portrayed by the magnificent Marin Ireland and he would obviously be ridiculously lucky to have her, your whole soul rises up in outrage: What is wrong with this likable doctor (beautifully played by Will Brill of sexy “Oklahoma!” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) that he’s obsessed with Yelena, her stepmother, instead?So is Sonya’s Uncle Vanya, whose play this is meant to be. A nose-to-the-grindstone worker, he looks up in middle age and realizes to his horror and humiliation that he has wasted his life fattening the bank account and elevating the status of an unworthy man: Sonya’s father, the over-entitled professor, Serebryakov (a dapper Bill Irwin). Doomed to receive nothing better from Yelena, the professor’s wife, than a pathetic kiss on the forehead, Vanya doesn’t even have a woman to love him.David Cromer’s performance in the title role, though, suggests none of that swallowed fire and swirling torment. His Vanya is a blank, and it’s not a matter of simplicity or restraint; there is nothing to the interpretation underneath the words, even when Vanya gets loud. Certainly there wasn’t on Saturday night, when I saw the play. But a live show is an evolving organism. Cromer may yet fill up that hollowness.Using a warm, seamless, contemporary translation by Paul Schmidt, and performed for an audience of no more than 40 seated along two sides of the loft, this is an intimate production that’s strange as well — because of the unbalancing emptiness of Cromer’s Vanya, and because of the maturity and intelligence of its Yelena, played by Julia Chan.Reading as older than the 27 years that Chekhov specifies, but still clearly decades younger than her husband, she is no incurious ingenue. There is a wisdom to this Yelena, and a savvy; Astrov and Vanya’s rivalrous infatuation with her, then, is no mere response to dewdrop youth. Chicly dressed for the city life she has left behind (costumes are by Ricky Reynoso), she is the picture of pristine elegance, sure of herself and too lively minded to find happiness in the cosseted quiet of this country house.Jack Serio’s production of “Uncle Vanya,” with, clockwise from lower left, Virginia Wing as Marina, Will Brill as Astrov and David Cromer as Vanya. It’s performed for an audience of no more than 40 seated along two sides of the room.Emilio MadridNo one else is finding happiness, either, of course; at best, perhaps placid resignation. Vanya, in his resentment, comes nowhere near that, but a bouquet-smashing eruption of his temper is the catalyst for a mesmerizingly pretty stage tableau: soft orange rose petals fallen just so on the weathered teal table and the blond wood floor. (The set is by Walt Spangler, the props by Carrie Mossman.)“It was a scene worthy of an old master,” Vanya and Sonya’s adorable, guitar-strumming neighbor, Telegin (the wonderfully funny Will Dagger), says a short time later, and while he may be thinking less of the flowers than of the gunplay that ensued, the sentiment is absolutely right.Stunning visuals — like those petals and that candlelit tête-à-tête — are a hallmark of Serio’s work. The lighting designer Stacey Derosier, who was instrumental to the look of his “On Set With Theda Bara” early this year and “This Beautiful Future” last year, also designed “Uncle Vanya.”But what glows most tantalizingly in this production is the pulsing electricity between the tender, resilient Sonya and the tree-planting Astrov, who is far too casual with her heart. If only he could love her the way he loves the forest.Uncle VanyaThrough July 16 at a loft in the Flatiron District, Manhattan; vanyanyc.com. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes. More

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    At Départ d’Incendies, Young Theater Makers Swing Big

    Ariane Mnouchkine, a grande dame of French theater, helped to set up a new festival where emerging companies can try out ambitious stagings.When the revered French director Ariane Mnouchkine set up her own playhouse in 1970 in a disused munitions factory on the outskirts of Paris, she vowed to turn the space into a “laboratory for popular theater.” Over a half-century later, she is staying true to her word. This month, Mnouchkine has handed the keys to five emerging companies, at no cost, to stage a new festival: Départ d’Incendies, or “Starting Fires.”The idea came from Annabelle Zoubian, a 28-year-old theater director. In an interview, Zoubian said that the pandemic and the rising cost of touring had made it difficult for early-career artists to take on ambitious stagings. So, in 2021, she reached out to Mnouchkine and asked if she would be willing to host an event dedicated to young troupes.The answer, an instant “yes,” left Zoubian slightly stunned, she said before the opening performance of the festival last weekend. “It’s exactly what we needed — for someone to trust us to learn,” she said.Starting Fires, which runs through July 2, has taken over a rehearsal hall belonging to Mnouchkine’s company, Théâtre du Soleil, which regularly hosts performances. The five groups involved have taken a leaf from that ensemble’s egalitarian model: When they’re not performing, artists take turns staffing the ticket booth and the bar.Onstage, there was no shortage of talent. The three productions I saw all boasted large casts of up to 15 performers: a rarity for emerging companies, given the cost involved. They took big swings, and sometimes missed, but overall, their hard work paid exciting dividends.Mona Chaïbi, left, as Antigone and Benjamin Grangier as the Sentry in “Antigone.”Jérôme ZajdermannThe future is bright for Sébastien Kheroufi, a first-time director who imbued Sophocles’ ancient “Antigone” with personal touches. His starting point, according to the playbill, was his own fractured family history: His father left Algeria after the country’s bloody war for independence, yet fell on hard times in France.Perhaps as a result, a quiet sense of pain runs through Kheroufi’s “Antigone.” Set against the melancholy background of a well and a fallen tree, it earnestly captures the interplay between moral principles and family trauma in Sophocles’ play, only losing momentum in a couple of scenes. The rift between Antigone, who wants to bury her brother against the orders of Thebes’s leader Creon, and her sister Ismene is more balanced than usual: The somber, effective Louisa Chas makes it clear Ismene has already suffered too much to revolt.In 2021, while still a drama student, Kheroufi took a leading role in the occupation of Paris’s Théâtre de la Colline, protesting the closure of theaters across France. Here, he proves that he has the chops to steer a diverse group of actors, too. “Antigone” features experienced artists — like François Clavier, who makes a toweringly self-satisfied Creon — as well as a chorus of four amateur women who have experienced exile. Kheroufi met those women while working with an emergency shelter, and in one scene, each one curses at Creon in a different language, with arresting gravitas.Thomas Corcessin, left, and Lula Paris in “Platonov.”Conrad AllainAnother director, Zoubian, opted to tackle a classic drama: “Platonov,” Anton Chekhov’s first four-act play, from 1878. There is a chaotic energy to the characters — who drink and party around Platonov, a local Casanova, to evade ennui in a Russian province — that makes it especially well-suited to young actors.Zoubian’s cast took time to settle into this marathon, which clocks in at well over three hours, and there were a couple of technical mishaps: Chekhov’s proverbial gun didn’t fire in the final scene, for instance. But the production ultimately stayed the course, in no small part thanks to Léo Nivet (a charismatic, wide-eyed Sergei) and Romane Bonnardin (trusting and poignant as Sacha, the wife Platonov betrays).Starting Fires moved outdoors, to a corner of the parking lot, for one production: “Macabre Carnival,” inspired by the Tupamaros, a far-left revolutionary movement active in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s. For this show, which had its premiere in 2021, the 15-strong troupe Théâtre de l’Hydre conducted significant research in the country, and features artists born there, as well as in Chile, France and Peru.Clément Delpérié, center, in “Macabre Carnival.”Mathieu VouzelaudMnouchkine, herself an epic narrator of historical events, is named as an inspiration several times in the playbill, and her influence was clear throughout. With just a handful of platforms on wheels and drawings on a blackboard, the cast set out the main characters and the political context, zipping along with verve. Their director, Stéphane Bensimon, is adept at finding ingenious transitions, and the cast’s many talents — music, dance, even acrobatics — are used at exactly the right times to enhance group scenes.Even as a few cars hummed in the background, “Macabre Carnival” was wholly engrossing, with a utopian streak that set the tone for the festival. At a time when many young French companies are leaving Paris to bring theater to rural areas, Starting Fires is a welcome new showcase. It deserves to become a permanent fixture on the summer festival calendar.Festival Départ d’IncendiesThrough July 2 at La Cartoucherie in Paris; festival-depart-d-incendies.com. More

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    Review: A Star Director Takes a Back Seat in ‘The Seagull’

    Thomas Ostermeier’s surprisingly traditional production of the Chekhov classic came to life via the cast’s performances, and without radical interventions by the director.Konstantin, the aspiring playwright in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” dreams of inventing “new forms” for the theater. Sensitive, moody and a bit ridiculous, Konstantin isn’t exactly a mouthpiece for the great Russian author, although Chekhov was himself out to innovate and reform. His chamber drama, filled with unheroic, frustrated figures propelled by life’s bitter ironies rather than melodramatic flourishes, proved too much for the play’s first audience to bear.Now a canonical work, “The Seagull” remains devilishly tricky to pull off, however, not because Chekhov’s theatrical form still confounds, but because of the difficulty of corralling an acting ensemble to play off each other with naturalness and ease while slipping between Chekhov’s shifting and overlapping emotional registers.In a surprisingly traditional staging of “The Seagull” that opened on Monday at the Berlin Schaubühne, Thomas Ostermeier ceded the floor to the actors, in a production that was free of the directorial interventions or distractions that classic works are often subjected to on German stages. Instead, this production largely came to life with the purest and most economical of theatrical means: the individual and collective performances of the 10-person cast. (The Schaubühne staging is also far tamer than “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY,” Thomas Bradshaw’s irreverent adaptation, which is transposed to the Catskill Mountains and is currently playing Off Broadway.)That approach may seem surprising for Ostermeier, a director best known to New York audiences for his furious and exuberantly messy reimaginings of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “Hamlet” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Ostermeier’s more recent work has largely gone in a tamer, more conventional direction. And so it was with this “Seagull,” which had precious little to do with discovering new forms.There are some updates in this modern-dress production. In the opening scene, Masha, a secondary character who is hopelessly in love with Konstantin, vaped. At one point, the loud engine of a plane roared overhead — the only time the outside world intruded on the characters’ country idyll.More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This SpringMusical Revivals: Why do the worst characters in musicals get the best tunes? In upcoming revivals, world leaders both real and mythical get an image makeover they may not deserve, our critic writes.Rising Stars: These actors turned playwrights all excavate memories and meaning from their lives in creating these four shows, which arrive in New York in the coming months.Gustavo Dudamel: The New York Philharmonic’s new music director, will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in May. It will be one of the hottest tickets in town.Feeling the Buzz: “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” is back on Broadway. Its stars? An eclectic cast of dancers who are anything but machines.Ostermeier has allowed the Schaubühne’s ensemble of actors to tweak their lines and make them more natural, or contemporary, and this production also includes some rather blunt new meta-theatrical dialogue. (“Why perform the classics nowadays? They sell well.”) The first-act play-within-the-play that Konstantin writes to demonstrate new forms has been rewritten by the actor playing that role, Laurenz Laufenberg. Despite these emendations, this “Seagull” remains surprisingly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Chekhov’s original.Alina Vimbai Strähler, left, as Nina, and Joachim Meyerhoff, who plays Trigorian.Joachim MeyerhoffThe most gripping thing about the staging is the space in which it unfolds, an area dominated by a massive plane tree. The seating in the auditorium has been reconfigured and the audience is arrayed around the actors, who perform in front of the imposing tree. Occasionally an actor lies on, or hangs from, its thick branches. Several characters hide behind its mighty trunk; another urinates in it.The actors frequently got up close and personal with the audience members, circling the small stage, or tearing down the aisles to enter or exit, achieving a degree of intimacy that was exciting but not without risk. Experiencing the performances at such close range meant that both their merits and their shortcomings were magnified.Such a gambit only stood a chance of succeeding with a top-flight troupe of actors. However, the cast, drawn largely from the theater’s permanent ensemble, left a mixed impression. To their credit, the cast showed remarkable cohesion — and things never got monotonous — over the duration of a very chatty show, set in a single location. But there was only one standout performance, that of Joachim Meyerhoff as Trigorian, the older writer who ends up running away with the aspiring actress Nina. Meyerhoff, one of the Schaubühne’s finest actors, injected fresh life into his character, a popular second-rater who probably suspects that he’s a hack. His performance was shot through with twitching, neurotic energy, humor, and self-deprecating charm. Whenever he wasn’t onstage, the production glowed less brightly.Laufenberg overdid Konstantin’s temper tantrums in Act I, but found a convincingly pained and broken register for the closing scene. The women in the cast fared less well. As Arkadina, an aging starlet and Konstantin’s mother, Stephanie Eidt’s histrionic performance was pitched halfway between Blanche DuBois and Norma Desmond. As Nina, Alina Vimbai Strähler never fully inhabited her complex and demanding role; her journey from wide-eyed optimism to crushing disillusion seemed largely superficial.“There are no new forms here, but simply bad behavior,” Arkadina comments after seeing her son’s play. The only time you could accuse this production of bad behavior is when Meyerhoff takes a leak against the tree. For the majority of its intermissionless 165 minutes, this “Seagull” is handsome and skillfully rendered, but curiously bloodless, much like the stuffed specimen at the play’s end. More

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    In Russian Plays, Don’t Mention the War

    Paris productions of Chekhov, Turgenev and Ostrovsky avoid current events and focus on profound truths. But the plays’ message is clear: If you rebel, you will be crushed.Since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, cultural institutions in Europe and the United States have contemplated what to do with Russian art. Tchaikovsky’s militaristic “1812 Overture?” Potentially offensive, and dropped from many concerts. Dostoyevsky? One of President Vladimir V. Putin’s favorite authors, cross-examined, in Ukraine and elsewhere, for his expansionist views.Chekhov’s plays, on the other hand? So far, nobody is pulling them from the stage.The Russian dramatic repertoire, more widely, has flown under the radar. In Paris, no fewer than four Russian plays were on at prominent playhouses in late January and early February, including Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya,” as well as lesser-known works, such as pieces by Turgenev (“A Month in the Country”) and by Ostrovsky (“The Storm”).And the artists involved appear to be staying away from mentioning the war. While the Ukrainian flag was unfurled regularly on French stages in 2022, it made an appearance just once at the performances I saw of those four plays: At the end of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country,” at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet, an actor brought it out and held it during the curtain calls. Only one playbill, for “The Seagull” at the Théâtre des Abbesses, mentioned Ukraine.In a country like France, where support for Ukraine is steadfast, this is hardly for lack of sympathy. It probably has more to do with Russian theater’s reputation for universalism — the belief that a playwright like Chekhov revealed profound truths about the human condition that went far beyond Russia’s borders. As the performer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from Soviet Russia in 1974 and has spoken against the war, told The New York Times last year: “The miracle of Chekhov’s writing is that, no matter where it’s performed, it feels local to the culture.”The directors of these four Russian plays presumably didn’t select them in connection to geopolitical events. The sets for all the productions I saw were tastefully vague, and the costumes mostly modern. Since theater productions in France are typically planned at least two years before they reach the stage, all would most likely have been scheduled before the invasion of Ukraine last February.Sébastien Eveno and Cyril Gueï in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe.Marie LiebigStill, watching 19th-century plays by Chekhov, Turgenev and Ostrovsky in short succession offers a fascinating window onto Russian culture, which has long prized the performing arts. After a few nights in a row, the characters started to feel connected. The unhappily married Natalya Petrovna, in “A Month in the Country,” had a kinship with Helena in “Uncle Vanya” and Katerina in “The Storm.” All three suffer from ennui and neglect in the countryside; all three seek solace in affairs that end badly.The State of the WarA New Offensive: As the war intensifies in Eastern Ukraine, doctors struggle to handle an influx of injuries and soldiers fret over the prospect of new waves of conscripts arriving from Russia.Russia’s Economy: Shunned by the West, Russia was for a time able to redirect its oil exports to Asia and adopt sanction evasion schemes. But there are signs that Western controls are beginning to have a deep impact on the country’s energy earnings.Leadership Shake-Up: President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political party will replace Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. The expected move comes amid a widening corruption scandal, although Mr. Reznikov was not implicated in wrongdoing.Nuclear Fears Abate: U.S. policymakers and intelligence analysts are less worried about Russia using nuclear weapons in the war. But the threat could re-emerge, they say.It’s no coincidence, of course. Ostrovsky and Turgenev were acquainted, and Chekhov, who came of age later in the 19th century, knew his predecessors’ work and name-checks both in “Uncle Vanya.”The themes they explored speak to social rifts that manifest across cultures. Class struggles, such as landowners’ power over regular workers or the disdain of urban professors and artists for country life, underpin the characters’ relationships, as does this patriarchal society’s hold over women. (Bad weather and alcohol also feature prominently.) Patriotic wars don’t come calling for local men, unlike in many Russian novels.Pauline Bolcatto and Naasz in “The Seagull.” The production makes an impassioned case for Chekhov as a vessel for the world’s feelings rather than for any specific sense of Russian-ness. Gilles Le MaoBrigitte Jaques-Wajeman’s “The Seagull” makes the most impassioned case for Chekhov as a vessel for the world’s feelings rather than for any specific sense of Russian-ness. She has opted for a very spare production at the Théâtre des Abbesses, the second stage of the Théâtre de la Ville: Beyond a painted backdrop evoking the lake mentioned in the play, the cast only has a small elevated stage made of wooden blocks and a few tables and chairs to work with.Yet every element is used beautifully. One of Jaques-Wajeman’s great strengths lies in the precision of her work with actors, and here, she brings individual color out of each. As Nina, the country girl who dreams of becoming an actress, Pauline Bolcatto starts off as a ball of innocent enthusiasm, while Hélène Bressiant brings a touch of goth nihilism to the resigned Masha. As Arkadina, the successful and snobbish actress visiting her country home, Raphaèle Bouchard rocks improbable turbans and fuchsia pants.This “Seagull” brought out a constant from Russian play to Russian play: Practically everyone in them, no matter how rich or successful, feels emotionally stunted.It is true, too, of “A Month in the Country” and “The Storm,” two plays that are seen much less often in the West. The plot of Ostrovsky’s “The Storm,” which had its premiere in 1859, is perhaps better known outside Russia through “Kat’a Kabanova,” the 1921 Janacek opera named after the play’s central character. Kat’a, or Katerina, is saddled with a husband she doesn’t love and an overbearing mother-in-law. She starts a covert relationship with Boris, who has recently arrived in her small town, only to become overwhelmed by the moral implications.Denis Podalydès brought a sensitive, visually elegant production of “The Storm” to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, led by the arresting Mélodie Richard as Katerina. A photograph showing the Volga River is reproduced in the background on wooden panels, which are later turned over to create a simple, two-tiered structure for Katerina and Boris’s nighttime escapades in the bushes.Stéphane Facco and Clémence Boué in “A Month in the Country” at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet.Juliette Parisot“The Storm” and “A Month in the Country” both show humans chafing against curtailed horizons. In “A Month in the Country,” Natalya Petrovna, a woman who falls for her son’s young tutor, isn’t the only one to suffer. Like Masha in “The Seagull,” the young Vera, an orphan who lives with Natalya’s family, sees her options in life for what they are and resigns herself to a joyless marriage.Juliette Léger conveys Vera’s arc with admirable ease in Clément Hervieu-Léger’s captivating production of “A Month in the Country.” The entire cast, in fact, struck a bittersweet, realistic balance between comedy and tragedy, from Clémence Boué (Natalya) to Stéphane Facco (wondrous in the role of Rakitin, Natalya’s platonic companion).Yet for all the emotional truth in these characters, from Turgenev and Ostrovsky to Chekhov, the sentence for those who stray is harsh. They all fail. At best, they return to a dull life; sometimes, suicide is their preferred option.It is a bleak outlook for domestic dramas. Nobody is calling for these plays to be canceled, but to call them “universal” is a little too easy. In Russian theater, if you rebel against social norms, you will be crushed.That, in itself, is a message. More

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    Avant-Garde Theater, or a Musical: Who Says You Need to Choose?

    In Germany, a sonically daring Chekhov adaptation and a post-apocalyptic western “opera” are breaking down barriers between genres.FRANKFURT — Ever since Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill served up “The Threepenny Opera,” their “play with music,” in Berlin in 1928, the dividing line between spoken and musical theater in Germany has been remarkably porous.Music is everywhere in contemporary German theater, often used to heighten or subvert emotional effects. Some of the credit or blame goes to Frank Castorf, the influential East Berlin director, whose long, demanding productions at the Volksbühne owed much of their unique, frenetic energy to the eclectic soundtracks devised by the theater’s longtime music director, Sir Henry.The quota of live music on dramatic stages here also seems to be increasing. Recent memorable examples have included the furious drumming that provides a rhythmic backbone to the Trojan War segment of Christopher Rüping’s monumental “Dionysos Stadt” and the dronelike chanting in Ulrich Rasche’s takes on classic works.And two of last year’s most discussed shows — Bonn Park’s “Gymnasium” and Yael Ronen’s “Slippery Slope” — were bona fide musicals, with impressive scores and singing, although they were a far cry from your typical Broadway or West End fare. Watching both productions, I felt we might be on the cusp of a breakthrough, with serious theater makers here channeling the vulgar and gleeful tunefulness of “Avenue Q” or “The Book of Mormon.”Such thoughts swirled in my head as I sat down to watch “Burt Turrido. An Opera” in Frankfurt this month. A four-hour post-apocalyptic western, it will travel to Hamburg and Berlin in the coming weeks.Behind the show is Nature Theater of Oklahoma, an influential American avant-garde theater collective that was founded in New York in 2006 and has become increasingly prominent on European stages in the past decade. The troupe’s co-founders, Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, are serious artists whose shrewd approach and mischievous creative drive combine elements of European and American avant-gardes. Formally daring, energetic and unpredictable, their work is hard to pin down precisely because it encompasses so many genres and styles.From left, Bence Mezei, Robert M. Johanson, Anne Gridley and Gabel Eiben in “Burt Turrido.”Jessica SchäferSadly, the theatrical exuberance and innovation that characterize Copper and Liska’s best efforts are in short supply in “Burt Turrido,” a loopy mock-opera whose silliness would be bearable if the meandering libretto had anything to say, or if the canned score was not a succession of immediately forgettable folk and country tunes.The title character (a bewildered-looking Gabel Eiben) is a red-bearded castaway with amnesia who washes ashore on a barren island. He is rescued by Queen Karen (a scene-chewing Anne Gridley) and King Bob (Robert M. Johanson, who also wrote the music), petty despots who seized control of the island after it was swept by waves of environmental catastrophe, war and genocide. Burt is pursued by Karen, who wants his child, and a lovesick ghost named Emily (Kadence Neill, the cast’s best singer). Oh, and there’s Joseph (Bence Mezei), Emily’s ex-husband and Karen’s ex-lover, who has more than a little in common with his biblical predecessor. (For starters, he’s thrown into a pit.)The characters circle one another in an endless dance of romantic intrigue, suspicion and shifting power dynamics. Copper and Liska keep the tone light, with some silly sci-fi and horror effects (ghosts in sheets; a chintzy U.F.O.) and only a handful of genuinely moving scenes.This is a show with legs: It has already been performed in the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and Greece. (So far, however, no U.S. dates have been announced.) And it does seem to have been devised and designed for maximum portability. Luka Curk’s set consists of little more than flat, hand-painted backdrops, cutout waves jerked back and forth by the performers, and a shimmering blue cloth to represent the sea.Of course, a certain level of flimsiness is precisely the point of this winking, knowing operatic sendup: It’s decidedly a bargain basement production, and Copper and Liska’s ability to create a convincing and clean theatrical aesthetic out of the bare-bones staging is their main achievement here. Yet at even half its current length, “Burt Turrido” would be excruciating. Its 14 scenes (and epilogue) feel like a goofy sketch that has metastasized to operatic proportions.I would have felt bad for the performers who needed to drawl, warble and dance their way through the overlong evening, except that they appeared to be having more fun than the audience, a large portion of which fled at intermission. Beyond the spirited performances, there’s little to recommend “Burt Turrido,” which mostly feels like a joke that goes on far too long. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is how little the music adds. Here, too, the constant singing registers mostly as a gimmick, and there is little flair to Johanson’s score. The result is an impoverished “opera” where neither the music nor the drama is enriched through their combination.The cast of “Waiting for Platonov,” directed by Thom Luz, at the Residenztheater.Sandra ThenFor a sly and haunting marriage of those two elements, turn to “Waiting for Platonov,” an arrestingly musical production by the Swiss director Thom Luz at the Residenztheater in Munich. The title character of Chekhov’s early play, a womanizing schoolteacher who broods on his life of failure, never materializes during the production’s two and a half hours. Instead, a troupe of 10 actors recite snippets of dialogue drawn from the Russian writer’s work and break out in song while performing an energetic choreography that is precisely timed to a witty, inventive sound design.The title, with its nod to Beckett, can be interpreted in several ways. First of all, it proposes the Russian dramatist as a sort of precursor to the Irish Nobel Prize winner in his examination of futility as an existential component of human life. Chekhov’s characters cavort in dachas, while Beckett’s take up residence in trash cans — but they all feel the stifling dread and purposelessness of existence. The title may also refer to the fact that it took over four decades for Chekhov’s 1878 work to be published. The actors’ excitement and increasing exasperation over Platonov’s impending arrival parallels the writer’s frustrations with the play, which was rejected by Maria Yermolova, the great Russian actress to whom he sent the manuscript.Luz, an in-house director at the Residenztheater, brings a compositional rigor to his work that is occasionally reminiscent of the style of Christoph Marthaler and Herbert Fritsch, two influential older directors with keen musical sensibilities and a penchant for absurdity, but his enigmatic and astringent style is entirely his own. The show’s soundscape, devised by Luz, is full of popping mics, uncanny reverberations, sustained clusters of discordant notes and an out-of-tune mechanical piano. As the actors ascend and descend two large onstage staircases (also designed by Luz), their footfalls describe musical scales.Luz balances between the production’s abstract, aural elements and Chekhov’s decontextualized dialogue, which takes on a musical function as well through chanting. Although it is as far from traditional musical theater as “Burt Turrido. An Opera” is from “La Traviata,” “Waiting for Platonov” is a fusion of music, sound and text that is hypnotic, compelling and utterly fresh.Burt Turrido. An Opera. Directed by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska. Oct. 27-29 at Kampnagel, in Hamburg; Nov. 3-5 at HAU — Hebbel am Ufer, in Berlin; Nov. 11-13 at Espoo City Theater, in Espoo, Finland.Waiting for Platonov. Directed by Thom Luz. Through Dec. 7 at the Residenztheater, in Munich. More

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    ‘Seagull’ Review: Blurring the Lines of Fiction

    Elevator Repair Service’s Chekhov revival has promising ideas about art, experimentation and truth, but the production inevitably falls flat, our critic writes.If only I could find someone who loves me enough to gift me a dead bird in a brown paper bag.I jest, of course. The wounded young protagonist who delivers this confounding gift in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” communicates his thoughts and feelings through wild symbols — “new forms” of art, he says — like this particular one of the avian variety. The theater troupe Elevator Repair Service — known for its ambitious, innovative takes on classics like “The Great Gatsby” (“Gatz”) — attempts to meet that challenge in its latest work, “Seagull.”But this highly stylized contemporary production, which recently opened at NYU Skirball in a nearly three-hour production, feels like a series of ideas that never quite cohere. The beginnings of those ideas are promising, though: the toppling of the fourth wall, the meta references to the original text, the vivid tonal changes and the comic recasting of the play’s characters, each of them living through their own sad, ironic farce of a life.Let’s begin with those clowns. Konstantin (a wooden Gavin Price) wants to be a great writer but is too busy producing incomprehensible symbolist plays, at least that’s what his mother, Irina (Kate Benson, a bluster of affected melodrama), thinks. A vain actress with a vicious streak toward her son, Irina has come to stay with her sick brother at his country estate, and she’s taken along her boy toy, the famous writer Boris Trigorin (a compellingly aloof Robert M. Johanson). From the other side of the property comes Nina (Maggie Hoffman, magnetic), a young woman who wants to escape her circumstances and become an actress.One may need a map for the various romantic entanglements: Semyon (Pete Simpson) loves the depressed, coke-snorting Masha (Susie Sokol), who loves Konstantin, who loves Nina, who is enamored with Trigorin, who is attached to Irina. And Masha’s mother, Paulina (Lindsay Hockaday), is married to Ilya (Julian Fleisher) but is having an affair with the former playboy doctor Gene (a delightfully quippy Vin Knight).“Seagull,” directed by the group’s founder, John Collins, opens with a meandering curtain speech, charismatically delivered by Simpson as his real-life self, and ends in the world of Chekhov, where Simpson is now Semyon, a poor lovesick teacher. Simpson cracks jokes and rattles off (real and fictional) information about the Skirball stage, letting the audience know that the line between reality and fiction is needlepoint thin, though to what end is unclear.Elevator Repair Service’s “Seagull,” directed by John Collins, not only breaks the fourth wall but also has its characters break into dance.Ian DouglasThe breaking of the fourth wall happens mostly in the first several minutes, though this play is being marketed as interactive, part “chat with the audience,” as if the entirety of the show will be meta. The production seems to want to reach toward some message about art — particularly experimental art, especially experimental theater — as when the group cheekily pokes fun at itself in Simpson’s opening speech. “If ERS is known for anything,” Simpson says, “we’re known for our livestock, wallpaper and violent dance.”I’m sorry to report that there’s no livestock or wallpaper but there is a bit of dancing (whether you’d deem it violent depends on your particular disposition). And besides a few references to the actors — not as their characters, but the real actors themselves — the production’s self-aware spoofing unfortunately falls to the wayside.The attempts to deconstruct Chekhov’s work extends to the set by Dots, the design collective. Lined up folding chairs, sat on by the cast, and a table with tech equipment are juxtaposed with a piano, where Konstantin broods, and a fraction of an old Russian dining room, just two perpendicular walls, decorated with framed paintings, a table and chairs in the center, where the characters sit to eat and play cards.And then there’s that dead bird.Dead feathered fowl! Suicide! Ruination! Unhappy marriages! Unrequited love! Festering resentment! “The Seagull” doesn’t seem like the kind of play that would tickle your funny bone, and yet Chekhov himself considered it a comedy. Most productions cast it as a tragedy (especially after the seminal Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski reinterpreted it as such in one of its first productions).Collins opts for both, going all in on comedy in the first half and making a daring turn to tragedy in the second. So Masha isn’t the cool goth pining after the dejected artist but a mopey dork in knee-high compression socks who drags herself across the stage while the sad-sack Semyon shuffles along after her. Konstantin isn’t a misunderstood virtuoso but a solipsistic hipster of an artist with serious mommy issues. In the final scene of the first act, Gene, having comforted two distraught characters in a row, comically declares, “You’re so upset! You’re all so upset!”And yet, despite its playful humor and antics, the show often falls into lulls where it’s mostly just performing a rote version of Chekhov’s piece.It’s not until partway through the second act that the show’s unforgettable shift occurs. The actors freeze, posing in an almost suffocating silence for several minutes. The set darkens and fog unfurls across the top of the stage. None of the actors speak, but we hear them reading their lines in voice-over. We see Nina slumped in a chair in the corner, Irina sitting in a commanding pose front and center, arms spread out on either side to rest on the chair backs, her legs brazenly crossed in front of her, and Ilya leaning against a pillar, head drooped to the side. The effect is haunting when paired with the disembodied voices. Instead of trying to seamlessly incorporate both the dark humor and the woe, the production calls attention to each individually.Chekhov’s play lends itself to dismantling and comic scrutiny. Take Aaron Posner’s postmodern remix, “Stupid _______ Bird,” which actually manages to pull off the balancing act that the Elevator Repair Service’s “Seagull” struggles with, splitting the difference between a dutiful replication of the text (or at least parts of it) and an irreverent sendup of prevailing ideas, themes and executions of the beloved work. Posner’s ambitious, if pretentious, play manages it a bit better through an almost Spartan-level commitment to its conceit, from script to stage.“Seagull” is milder in its execution of its ideas, though it would benefit from committing more to its experimental aspirations and making its insights about art clearer. And it could further blur the line between performance and reality as it does in the opening scene, allowing the actors to speak more freely, to improvise, to share parts of themselves even as they inhabit their characters.This production may get its audience thinking about art, experimentation and truth but can’t quite see those thoughts through. In the play Konstantin declares that we need new forms. This production may have inadvertently provided the answer: Only if the artist is up to it.SeagullThrough July 31 at NYU Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org. Running time: 2 hour 50 minutes. More

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    Putin, Chekhov and the Theater of Despair

    In London, a new play about President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and a revival of “The Seagull” explore undercurrents of pain.LONDON — There’s a chill in the air at the Almeida Theater, notwithstanding the record-breaking heat here. That drop in temperature comes from the coolly unnerving “Patriots,” a new drama whose look at power politics in Russia over the last quarter-century induces a shiver at despotism’s rise.The gripping production, directed by Rupert Goold, runs through Aug. 20.Written by Peter Morgan (“The Crown,” “Frost/Nixon”), “Patriots” surveys the sad, shortened life of Boris Berezovsky, the brainiac billionaire who died in 2013, age 67, in political exile in London. An inquest into Berezovsky’s mysterious death returned an unusual “open verdict,” but on this occasion, it is unequivocally presented as a suicide: The play ends with this balding man, bereft of authority, preparing to end his life.An academic whiz-turned-oligarch who expedited the rise of the younger Vladimir V. Putin, Berezovsky later fell out with the onetime ally who enlarged his power base, according to the play, with promises of “liberalizing Russia,” yet proceeded to do anything but.Morgan introduces Berezovsky, age 9, as a math prodigy whose mother hoped he might become a doctor. (A gleaming-eyed Tom Hollander plays the role throughout.) From there, we move forward 40 years to find Berezovsky an integral member of Russia’s moneyed elite welcoming to his office an obsequious Putin, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.“Respected Mr. Berezovsky,” says an initially indrawn, ferret-like Putin, “one would have to live on another planet not to know you!” But it isn’t long before Putin has changed his tune, and his tone, as he rises from prime minister to president and consolidates power around himself. In one notably effective wordless scene, Putin tries out poses in front of a mirror to see which makes him look most impressive. His earlier hesitancy has given way to a man in love with his own heroism.Berezovsky looks on at so dramatic a change in character appalled, urging the former K.G.B. operative to “know your place.” But Putin by this point simply won’t be sidelined. And besides, reasons Putin, why hold your enemies close when they can just as easily be destroyed?Tom Hollander as Boris Berezovsky in “Patriots.”Marc BrennerGoold, the director, dealt with a different headline-maker at the Old Vic this spring in “The 47th,” which imagined Donald J. Trump in the run-up to the next presidential election. Goold is in better company this time: “Patriots” is a richer, less fanciful play, with grim resonances for today. Although Morgan rightly leaves it to the audience to make the connection, you can draw a line between the glorious empire Putin yearns for in the play and his ongoing attack on Ukraine.In one of the performances of the year, Will Keen, as the Russian leader, astonishes throughout, bringing his character to agitated, unpredictable life. His early fawning in Berezovsky’s presence gives way to an icy rejection that finds its fullest expression when his onetime mentor writes as a fellow patriot requesting permission to come home to Russia. Putin dictates a reply, then tells his secretary to rip the letter up: Berezovsky, Putin concludes, “is not worth it.”Hollander impresses, too, as he did in a dazzling star turn in “Travesties,” which won the actor a 2018 Tony nomination — two talky plays requiring an actor at home with reams of language. His character is both a quick-tempered womanizer, and too naïve to realize the young Putin’s potential for authoritarian misrule.Widening the play’s scope yet further is the Russian president’s friend, the oligarch Roman Abramovich (the excellent Luke Thallon), who battles Berezovsky over ownership of the oil company Sibneft. That case, which came to trial in London in 2012, plays out here as a resounding defeat for Berezovsky that only amplifies his psychic distress. Alexander Litvinenko (Jamael Westman, a former leading man in “Hamilton”), the Putin critic who was poisoned in 2006, shows up, too, as the “most honorable” of dissidents (or so Morgan maintains): a political casualty wreathed in glory that the sorrowful Berezovsky never knew.There’s an aspect of bravery, you feel, in writing “Patriots” at all while Putin is on the march. (That said, like Trump with “The 47th,” it’s possible these men’s egos would thrive on the attention.) In the days after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, orchestras, concert halls and opera houses pulled Russian works from their stages, and it looked as if it might no longer be allowable to perform the Russian repertory in the West; overseas trips by the Bolshoi Ballet, among other storied Russian arts companies, were canceled, as well.Emilia Clarke, second from right, in Anya Reiss’s interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Harold Pinter Theater.Marc BrennerSo it’s a relief to welcome a Russian classic, “The Seagull,” first presented in 1896 by Anton Chekhov, who died nearly a half-century before Putin was even born. That this first of Chekhov’s four great plays ends, as does “Patriots,” with a suicide is an intriguing coincidence that also points to the undercurrents of pain that inform both plays.Performed barefoot and in modern dress, Jamie Lloyd’s enthralling production, at the Harold Pinter Theater through Sept. 10, furthers the stripped-back approach to the classics he brought to a recent “Cyrano de Bergerac” that was acclaimed in New York and London.Just as that play dispensed with a fake nose for its title character, this “Seagull,” seen here in Anya Reiss’s 2012 version, never features the wounded bird of the title onstage. Doing without props of any kind, the cast members, headed by the “Game of Thrones” alumna Emilia Clarke in a terrific West End debut, deliver the play seated on green plastic chairs and boxed in by chipboard; they speak with a quiet intensity, as though we were eavesdropping on the characters’ innermost thoughts. Some will be exasperated by the approach, but I was riveted from the first hushed utterance to the last.Like “Patriots,” this “Seagull” draws from its own well of grief, even if the world of writers and actresses in Chekhov’s play is a long way from Morgan’s power-brokers and politicos. Lloyd’s ensemble communicates the shifting affections of a quietly devastating play that leaves you transfixed by the theatrical potency of despair.Patriots. Directed by Rupert Goold. Almeida Theater, through Aug. 20.The Seagull. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Harold Pinter Theater, through Sept. 10; in cinemas Nov. 3. More