Sunday, June 21, 2009


THE MODERN THEATER BEGINS with Chekhov, say I. By Modern Theater I mean theater that primarily addresses the modern condition, which puts us in a constant triangulation of self, society, and history. Well, The Modern Theater begins with The Winter's Tale, of course; it only resumes with Chekhov: but it resumes after so long a stretch — since the French Baroque theater, writing and thinking here off the top of my head — that it's virtually a new beginning.
Last night we went to Santa Rosa, a twenty-minute drive, to see three one-act plays of Chekhov's: On the Injuriousness of Tobacco; A Tragic Man Despite Himself; The Proposal, produced by The Imaginists in their loft-style theater — no proscenium, wings, or backstage.
These short plays make me think of so much early-20th-century work: Gertrude Stein's chamber plays, the short stories of Saki, the experimental one- and two-page fictions of Virginia Woolf. Chekhov positions himself between the concrete realism of narrative and the abstract pointlessness — well, apparent pointlessness — of the Theater of the Absurd.
I love his great full-length plays: The Sea-gull; The Three Sisters; Uncle Vanya; The Cherry Orchard. They are marvelous examples of scale and proportion. But these shorter plays are just as carefully proportioned, but tense and alarming in their quick jumps and alternations. They're extremely psychological, of course; more so perhaps than the more extensive, conversational three-act plays.
A curiously determinate, even fateful number-scheme underlay the Imaginists' presentation On the Injuriousness of Tobacco is a monologue portraying an anxious lecturer; A Tragic Man Despite Himself is a two-man play; The Proposal adds an actress to the number.
Brent Lindsay was brilliant in all three vehicles, with perfect control of pitch, facial expression, body language, timing, and voice: I don't see how anyone could have done any of it better.
Eliot Fintushel was nearly his match in the supporting roles in the other two plays, and Tessa Rissacher was marvelous as the canny, down-to-earth would-be bride of The Proposal, an early play (1889) that lifts farce toward the 20th-century Absurdists.
Staged in a neutral space, directed with style and enterprise by Amy Pinto, the production repeats June 25, 26, and 27 at 8 pm, and we're going back: it was that good.
  • The Imaginists Theatre Collective, 461 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa; tel. 707-528-7554;

  • Green Integer has published these texts in George Malko's translation, which is the version used by The Imaginists; the web page linked here describes the publication and offers a review, by John Stokes (originally run in TLS), with interesting comments on On the Injuriousness of Tobacco, which Chekhov revised five times and completed only in 1902, the year of Uncle Vanya.

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