By Sarah Downs
Chekhov’s First Play (or as I like to call it, “Director on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) is an exuberant ride through the misery and madness of late 19th century Russia. It is a joyous and peculiar experience.
Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd have reinvented an early Chekhov play that had been tucked away in a safe deposit box during the Russian Revolution and rediscovered in 1921. This rambling early work became known as Platonov, after its protagonist. As written, it foreshadows the playwright’s brilliance, ringing all the bourgeois Chekhovian bells. There’s isolation! There’s property! There’s vodka! As written, it would also have been over five hours long.
Chekhov’s First Play is a wacky, sophisticated deconstruction/reconstruction that treats us to a (thankfully) condensed version of Platonov, which soon begins to morph into something quite extraordinary. And by “morph” I mean completely fall apart.
Set up as a play within a play, Platonov is presented on two levels. Actors onstage speak the lines while the director provides an hilarious blow-by-blow commentary courtesy of headphones at each seat. He just cannot let go of his work, interposing himself between the play and the audience, as if to direct us as well. As he loses control of the onstage action, he begins to unravel. Listening to him in our headphones, we experience his devolution individually. It’s as if each of us is watching in solitude.
The play centers on the character of Platonov, whom several characters know from University and with whom they seem to be obsessed. He is their absent hero, a martyr to his failures on whom they project their fears and jealousy, and on whom they depend for answers. Friends and family, including Platonov’s wife, have gathered at the country estate of Anna Petrovna. Around the dinner table, they discuss money, idealism, society’s decline — the usual garden party fare. They also refer to Platonov endlessly. You begin to wonder if he is real, or if indeed it matters whether he is or not.
When Platonov does appear, after a fashion, the implosion begins. Past and present collide. The actors move about the stage in a carefully choreographed manner, in their own crumbling worlds, peeling away their characters as if disposing of a carapace. It’s fabulous. Dead Centre has assembled a skilled, uniformly excellent cast of actors who handle every transition seamlessly. They all have the gravitas to handle the language and moments of heavy drama, and the daring to embrace the madness.
When I see something as wildly imaginative as Chekhov’s First Play, I happily sit back in wonder. Who are these incredible artists who can look at a text, especially an unfinished, overlong, incoherent one and come up with an ingenious abstraction that is yet its own construct? It’s unfettered and complete. You don’t know what will happen next, but that’s part of the joy of this piece. It is a multi-sensory experience. Give in to it.
Chekhov’s First Play, devised and directed by by Dead Centre artistic directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd. With Alexandra Conlon, Tara Egan-Langley, Daniel Reardon, Paul Reid, Dylan Tighe, and Ali White.
Presented by Dead Centre; produced by Cally Shine. Set design by Andrew Clancy, costume design by Saileóg O’Halloran, lighting design by Stephen Dodd, effects and onstage design by Grace O’Hara, sound design by Kevin Gleeson, choreography by Liv O’Donoghue. Anthony Hanley (production manager), Gavin Kennedy (tour re-lighter) Ellen Kirk (costume/prosthetics).
Runtime is 70 minutes with no intermission. Please note: Face masks must be worn inside the theater.