“After doing a TV show or a film, working with (director) Jay (Scheib) feels like a necessity,” says Sarita Choudhury in a recent interview. “His work is so physical and allows you to break all rules of realism, except of course the emotional ones.”
That sounds like fun! And yet, it wasn’t.
What it was was FRUSTRATING. Yes, the physicality and rule-breaking are there. (Actor Jon Morris, a former diving champion, hurtles through the air and made me wince every single time he hit the floor. He plays Sergey as a sort of melange of characters from The Dukes of Hazzard, which is a great, wacky choice.) But at the same time, the production feels claustrophobic, bound by its own artifice, the actors’ work severely limited by frenetic blocking, gimmicky staging and deliberately stilted language. Again and again and again during the piece, I wanted to yell, “WHY??”
The seemed-like-it-was-going-to-be-exciting premise of the production — a live-action play being filmed and simultaneously projected above the stage AND at a movie theater – turns out to be utterly ineffective for the theater audience. Yes, I get it: you’ve created a set of four rooms which are NOT fully visible to the audience, so we are forced to watch the live action on the screen above the stage, as it is filmed by the roving cameraman (Scheib himself). Not being able to see the actors on stage most of the time just left me frustrated and bored. If humans are doing something right in front of me, I don’t want to watch it on a screen. Yes, that successfully creates some sort of experience of alienation, which mirrors the characters’ experiences in some way – but mostly it just succeeds at not letting me see the performance.
In an interview, Scheib explains that “The technique of film and a play simultaneously is like (Bertolt Brecht’s) alienation effect because it makes us aware of both mediums and prevents us from becoming emotionally lost in the story so we can better think through what is happening before us.” There is no danger of the audience becoming emotionally lost in the story. We are so aggressively kept away from any authentic emotion that “what is happening before us” becomes shapeless, and thus we have nothing to think through.
Choudhury (Anna) has been giving such grounded, complex performances as Mandy Patinkin’s conflicted wife on HBO’s Homeland that it was painful to watch her running around the stage aimlessly, taking clothing off, in a performance that looked like it could be fun if only there was any foundation supporting it. Her Anna is crafty, desperate, lusty and dangerous, and I just wanted everything and everyone on stage to stop moving and be quiet so that Choudhury actually had a second to connect to either herself, another actor, or the audience.
Of the rest of the cast, Tony Torn (Porfiry Glagolyev) was a pleasure to watch every minute, and Virginia Newcomb (Sonya Voynitsev), making her New York debut, was thrilling. Despite the failure of this particular performance, I am excited by Scheib’s ideas and loved the feeling of everything being deconstructed around me. I’m very interested to hear whether the production makes changes during the run, and to see what results.
Platonov, or The Disinherited – Adapted and directed by Jay Scheib, from a play fragment by Anton Chekhov
WITH: Sarita Choudhury (Anna Voynitsev), Tony Torn (Porfiry Glagolyev), Mikeah Ernest Jennings (Michael Platonov), Jon Morris (Sergey Voynitsev), Rosalie Lowe (Nicole Triletsky/Osip), Ayesha Ngaujah (Sasha Platonov), Laine Rettmer (Jacob) and Virginia Newcomb (Sonya Voynitsev).
Produced by ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann in association with Jay Scheib & Co. Stage Design by Caleb Wertenbaker. Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker. Sound Design by Anoushcka Trocker. Video Design and Live Edit by Josh Higgason. Costumes by Alba Clemente. Stage Management by Susan Beth Wilson. Associate Director Laine Rettmer. Assistant Directors Tara Ahmadinejad and Kasper Sejersen. Live performance at the Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, with simulcast film at various locations; 212-255-5793, Ext. 11; thekitchen.org. Through Jan. 24. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.