Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Russians are Coming

I have been wanting to write on these two things for a while, but
haven’t had either the time or the inclination for some reason. Now it feels a little like the horse has left the barn, but I’ll see what comes up.

A few weekends ago, maybe a month now, I had an extremely Russian experience watching both the movie of Dr. Zhivago and seeing a production of the Cherry Orchard in the same weekend. Interesting to me because one presages the events of the other, but both have certain things in common. I will say out the outset that I have a prejudice for Chekhov, so let’s get that out of the way. But then again, who wouldn’t? Like I said, don’t really know what I’m going to say here, but I’ll go ahead and jump in.

Doctor Zhivago. Everyone talks about the love story, but it’s a fascinating movie in that the love story doesn’t click in until half way through the movie. Until then, we are seeing revolution, and how those personal relationships effect out hero, Yurii Zhivago.

Quick summation: it is near the revolution. Zhivago is a well-off
medical student who is engaged to Tonya (a very young Geraldine Chaplin in her first movie role). He crosses paths at a restaurant with Laura, who has come to shoot a callous man (played by Rod Steiger) who is having an affair with both her and her mother. She misses and shoots his hand. Laura leaves and marries a revolutionary (Tom Courtenay) who will later become an inflexible revolutionary leader of the party. He leaves her, Zhivago is pulled off to help in the revolutionary effort, though not a political man, and has to leave his wife and her family.
Laura is the nurse who he serves with. When he returns there are
several families living in the huge family house, and the family
flees. Of course, they flee to a town near where Laura lives. He
initiates an affair, she becomes pregnant; he is pulled off to the war again, and on and on.

Aside from the love story, the historical preservation of the
hairstyles of 1965 and the ingratiating Laura’s theme, what this movie does well for me is explore the mindset of the revolution--the people who Zhivago comes back to, who have a little power for the first time in their lives, and the suspicion with which they view anyone who may have more than they do; the machinations of a system set up to protect itself and the few who create it by using the rhetoric of freedom; the peasant mentality. This last for me is the most interesting—as it is said that the Jews had to wander around in the desert for forty years so that anyone who remembered slavery died before entrance to the promise land, the Russian revolutionaries change their slavish allegiance from a Tsar to a despotic regime. And it’s that sheep mentality that fascinates me—perhaps, drawing a universal here, man is not so much looking for freedom as for someone to tell him what to do. I’m not sure I’m in that camp, but it’s fascinating how people will kill, starve, and torture for an idea if the idea is strong enough.

Do people want to live for an idea larger than themselves (I wouldn’t say selfless, because I don’t think it’s that, they just aren’t always the most selective in how they do it)? I find myself coming back to a conversation I had with a woman in the backseat of a car on the way to Salzburg from Vienna. She was from the Midwest and actually said “I don’t understand these people—if they were coming to take my freedom I would just take my children and leave.” I have a feeling though, if the idea was big enough, say terrorist strikes in the United States, she would be first in line to give them up. There’s not always a warning.

Not really sure where this is headed now, but interesting for me in the film was the transformation of the people at large. And the conscious choice to have Zhivago watch the entire thing passively. And the hairstyles. Ha ha. Actually, the DVD had some great extras—and a great making of featurette—who knew it was done in Spain, and that the house of ice was made of wax? That Pasternak actually had an affair with a woman later in life and modeled the book on his life? Most interesting was a Geraldine Chaplin story about the scene where the protestors in the street sing the Communist anthem. As this was Spain under Franco, people actually heard the singing and thought the revolution had come again. They were happy; the police weren’t. They watched the rest of the filming. Ideas are powerful.

Speaking of, one of the most powerful performances I have seen in a while was given by Alfred Molina recently in a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Ahmanson here in LA. I love this play. Molina played Lopakhin, the serf-cum-businessman who ends up buying the Orchard where his father and grandfather were slaves. I love this play—I’ll say it again. Nothing I can say will convey how much, but I’ll go ahead and try. If Zhivago is about larger idea and the play of history in individual lives, The Cherry Orchard is about the little decisions we make, who we are, and how these things conspire to shape our lives. I’ll just abbreviate now—ILTP.

Bit of a short synopsis for those of you not familiar with it: Everyone in the household is excited that Ranevskaya (played by Annette Bening) is returning after being in Paris with her lover. She is awaited by Dunyasha (Jennifer Dundas), a servant who thinks she is delicate like a lady; Lopakhin (Molina), a friend of the family who grew up as a serf there but is now a successful businessman; Gayev (Lothaire Bluteau—best known for Jesus of Montreal-in kind of an odd casting choice); Firs, ancient butler/valet to Gayev; and Varya, the mistress of the house and Ranevskaya’s daughter/foundling. Ranevskaya returns with her daughter Anya and her valet, Yasha, to her beloved house and Orchard, penniless. Lopakhin explains how she must sell the Orchard to let out for summer houses or she will lose it. She says she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Simeonov-Pischik, a neighbor, comes and ask to borrow money from her. She gives it to him. Petya Trofimov, her drowned 7 year-old son’s fromer tutor, is staying at the house as well. The moment of the auction comes closer as Ranevskaya and Gayev still have no way to pay the mortgage. Yasha flirts with Dunyasha, but really wants to go back to Paris. Lopakhin tries to convince Ranevskaya to convert the land. She says she has no money, but gives coins to a passing beggar. Varya berates her. She agrees no more, and then asks to borrow money from a friend. Anya and Trofimov have a romantic/revolutionary moment, as he talks about politics constantly, though still seems to have a little crush on Ranevskaya. The third act is a party, where Ranevskaya talk about how low they have come that they’re inviting the postman and it used to be nobles. Simeonov-Pischik comes in and borrows more money. Varya throws her keys angrily as she protests that she has no money to feed the servants and her mother is loaning others money. She agrees. Everyone is waiting for Lopakhin, Varya and Gayev to returnfrom the auction, as there has been a little money from a rich Aunt. Lopakhin comes in and tells everyone how he has bought the orchard.

Molina doing Lopakhin’s speech is stunning—I even asked a friend if I could see the text of the adaptation, as it felt fuller to me than any other time I had seen it or read it. When he sent it to me, the text was similar to the Lopakhin speech I remembered. It wasn’t the text, it was Molina’s performance. Anger, elation, frustration, rage, compassion, helplessness, ecstasy—I could go on, all of this contained in this small two paragraph speech recounting winning the auction and buying the house where his forefathers were slaves. The elation mixed with the triumphant rage at his father and grandfather having ever been slaves, and his exhortation to Ranesvskaya as she weeps—“Why didn’t you listen to me?” is chilling, and beyond real. Even in the midst of elation, we see what mixed feelings Lopakhin has in taking away something from a friend, but having had to do it before someone else did. And his frustration at her carelessness--and truly how much he loves this woman as well. I like Annette Bening, but she didn't register with me as much as he did. I wanted her to haunt the play as she does with everyone in it, but she didn't quite get there for me.

Of course, the most thrilling scene in the play for me is when Lopakhin is left alone with Varya, specifically to propose to her, and he speaks of nothing, then leaves the room when called. One reviewer noted how whenever marriage to Varya is mentioned in the play, he takes a step backward. You don’t even notice--it's not a huge gesture, but you feel his reluctance. In this production there is a silence after the conversation about nothing, and he steps toward her for the first time, as if to ask a question, and a voice calls him out of the room at that exact moment. Heart-breaking. Varya breaks down, composes herself. Everyone leaves. And Firs, the old butler who lives only to serve Gayev, is left alone in a locked house he can’t escape from. The End. And I haven’t even mentioned the wonderfully comic Yephikodov, the clutz with the squeaky shoes, or Carlotta, the ventriloquist nanny who eats whole cucumbers.

I know there’s a lot to write about this play, critically, but I just have to say ILTP and leave it at that. So a whole lot of plot summary. I liked the production, for the most part. What I most love about theatre is what this play does for me (When it's done well). There is a blank space. It is filled with life; it moves you, challenges you, touches you, and then the stage is empty. And you’re left a little changed, feeling fuller, happier, and slightly melancholy—you see the stage now as a place where something happened, someplace you were completely taken out of yourself, and you miss it a bit now that it’s gone. And it will stay with you for a while. The best theatre does that for me. It’s exhilarating.

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