We tend to take the literary canon for granted as though it was a list inscribed by the deity into a block of granite. But, in fact, there's often a great deal of uncertainty and despair as writers struggle to create their works and establish themselves. When Keats (who was dying of tuberculosis) composed his own epitaph "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," he believed he was telling an obvious truth.
Anton Chekhov also died of tuberculosis at the young age of 44. Carol Rocamora's play, I Take Your Hand in Mine, recently on the boards at Le Chat Noir, tells how Chekhov fell in love with Olga Knipper, one of the stars of the Moscow Art Theater. Director Natasha Ramer brought a tasteful and inventive eye to this miniature, corralling some talented folks to assist her.
The set (by Max Bernardi) was little more than two writing tables with bookstands on them. As the play began, the black curtain behind the stage opened to reveal an attractive map of Russia. The actors entered: the bearded Anton in a gray suit, the imperious Olga in a white dress. Costume designer Cecile Casey Covert thereby created an opposition appropriate to romance.
At first, the actors addressed the audience and spoke of themselves in the third person as though in a documentary. Soon, however, they slipped into their roles, living out their trysts and separations in the present. The play required them to be on stage almost the entire evening, but they drew us in with easy, nuanced performances despite the fact that the narrative involved little more than the correspondence between the two lovers.
Scott Jefferson played Chekhov. Jefferson is a subtle and convincing actor who has been largely absent from the local theater scene during the past few years. As Chekhov, he showed a man reluctant to display emotions. Yet, we felt those emotions beneath his feints of humor and gruffness. This lonely man was wild for his "glorious actress" whom he addressed with silly pet names like "my doggie."
Olga was played with grace by Kathy Randel. She is, of course, better known for her performance art creations, but she stepped out apparently with precious little rehearsal time in a more traditional role. She managed to incarnate the diva and grande dame of theater, while at the same time revealing the vulnerable woman in love.
Olga and Anton met at a reading of his play, The Seagull, in 1898. She was 29, and he was 38. The Moscow Art Theater wanted to do the play.
"I told them they were crazy! They hated it in Saint Petersburg!" roared Anton in an example of the uncertainty and despair that often accompanies a work destined to become canonical.
In addition to the love story, there are other significant glances at the ups-and-downs of artistic life for instance, Anton's irritation with the great director and theoretician Stanislavski. Who can help but roll their eyes when Anton describes The Cherry Orchard as a comedy? But he becomes furious when no one agrees with him.
Anton goes to Nice to start revisions on the play. Meanwhile, Olga is rehearsing his play The Three Sisters by day and performing his other work, Uncle Vanya, by night. Speaking of The Three Sisters, Anton sneers that he doesn't trust Stanislavski with four women's roles.
Finally, there is a priceless moment when Olga wheedles, "Darling, does it matter if I make a tiny cut in my final speech?" Any relationship that can survive that query is true love, indeed.
In the end, despite the disapproval of Anton's mother and sister, the playwright and actress get married. Love triumphs. They take a honeymoon sailing down the Volga to a sanatorium, for not even love can triumph over galloping consumption.
In fact, Anton's health is so weakened that he complains he can only write six or seven lines a day. But, perhaps he's also up against the plague of all writers: the blank page. Chekhov finally succumbed to illness in 1904.
I Take Your Hand in Mine was actually a revival. Ramer first brought the play to Teatro Wego in November under the aegis of Moscow Nights, her nonprofit organization promoting Russian culture.
I Take Your Hand in Mine was Moscow Nights' first show since Katrina. It seems that Ramer's cross-cultural bridge back to the land where she was born and educated can now be counted as part of the Crescent City's recovery. The show was a deeply satisfying evening of theater.
- John Barrois
- Scott Jefferson reprised his role as playwright Anton Chekhov in I Take Your Hand in Mine.