First, at the very least, kudos to anyone under 50 who still considers a play by Anton Chekhov as a project. When they do it right, that is something rare indeed. As an amateur chef I am always searching for ways to re-envision and deconstruct time tested classics. It doesn’t always work, but at times the effort resounds with stunning success. My wife and I are not strangers to Chekhov and Russian literature, by any means. We found this deconstruction of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,”, titled “The Nina Variations” written by award winning playwright Steven Deitz, and playing now through May 28th at Chicago’s historic Charnel House Theatre(3421 West Fullerton) true to Chekhov’s sardonic nature as well as remaining comfortably contemporary.
The original tells a much broader story, with a much larger cast. Here, in “The Nina Variations,” the collaboration of The Enthusiasts and El bear Theatre Companies, boils the story down, concentrating in a rapid fire series of vignettes the relationship between Nina, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, and Treplyov, a moody and self-tortured playwright. We find each of the characters moving back and forth through time, conversing with their younger and older selves. Interesting that following a miserable opening night reception to the play in 1896 Chekhov renounced the theatre. Two years later it reopened in Moscow to tremendous acclaim.
While the backstory of Nina’s privilege really isn’t told here, it also isn’t necessary to this retelling. Again that economy prevails, most especially by Rebecca Escobedo as the younger more lithe and eccentric Nina. Her mature alter ego, played by Bailey Neill, in her Chicago acting debut, ably carries the character into later years, as she is both enabling and is trapped by her relationship with Treplyov. Here again Deitz and the cast succeed in rendering the old and young mirror of Treplyov’s troubled persona. Where Texas transplant Josh Servantez is bright and reluctantly optimistic as the younger Treplyov, Shaun Rosten’s older Treplyov is mellowed, a bit hopeless and sarcastic, while his delivery offers some real laughs. The cast pivots around Nina’s offstage affair with a successful writer and antagonist to Treplyov, Boris Trigorin. Treplyov, in love with but unable to commit to Nina, who falls in love with and eventually marries Trigorin, measures his failure as a writer as well as his own internal angst against their relationship. Nina is only too eager to exploit that in h on again-off again affair with Trpelyov. There are moment of real emotion, which the cast delivers powerfully and naturally to the characters.
Personally, as a writer, there are some interesting subtexts here about relationships as well of the tortured and complex psyches of any passionately creative individual. In focusing the story to the relationship between Nina and Treplyov those narratives are much more apparent than in the original.
The original production of “The Seagull,” in 1896, could rely on the waning extravagance of the Royal Russian period. Modern interpretations quite naturally filter Chekhov through a mixture of post-Soviet revolution deprivation and the eternal realities of Russian peasantry. In that prism, the decidedly stark and simple stage setting is appropriate. The production itself is simple and straightforward, with a nicely textured and well-constructed minimalism.
Ultimately what separates great theatre comes down to the passion and sincerity of the cast. That is, will the cast step onto the stage for the sake of their art and exalt that space regardless of whether there are 4 people in the audience or 400 That is an effort requiring the entire cast and crew to pull off, and in last night’s performance they did to an exceptional degree. Speaking before the show with director Nate Bell, he remarked how his father felt everything had its own time. That is, in every successful production there a certain intangible but fully palpable magic which occurs; a confluence of talent, vision and opportunity. That confluence is a moment in time that is rarely recaptured and impossible to manufacture. It all comes together nicely in “The Nina Variations.” This is, for the cast and crew of “The Nina Variations,” one such moment in time.
Steven Deitz’ “The Nina Variations” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through May 28th at The Charnel House Theatre, 3421 West Fullerton in Chicago’s Logan Square. Shows start at 8, doors open at 7:30. The theatre offers wine, cocktails and craft beer selections for $5. Tickets are $15 dollars, available at http://theenthusiasts.brownpapertickets.com/ Just 5 minutes from the Kennedy, and a CTA bus stop at the corner.There is ample street parking and some good local eateries, like El Habanero, just a few blocks east at 3300 West Fullerton.