Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Snake and Seagull

The two short-season plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this spring are Chekhov's Seagull and Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, both of which we saw last Saturday. (We return to Ashland in late July to see the rest of the eleven-play cycle.)

Not that much need be said here about Seagull, adapted and directed by Libby Appel in a production designed minimally but effectively by Christopher Acebo in the New Theater. We saw this "adaptation" a little over a year ago, when it ran in Mill Valley at Marin Theater in a different production. I set the word in quotes: at the time Appel's new version, based on Allison Horsley's literal translation of Chekhov's text, seemed to me more a restoration than an adaptation, redirecting the audience's response from the picturesqueness of an exotic, long-ago society to the social and philosophical questions at the heart of Chekhov's play, always relevant, now perhaps more than fifty years ago.

I wrote about that production here.The current production is less physically detailed than Marin's, narrowing the focus onto the text, the dialogue. Since so much of Chekhov's dialogue is always interior and unspoken, revealed by inference through the otherwise apparently irrelevant comments of characters who don't really attend to one another, this can be hard on the audience.
It has its value, though, rightly extending the effectiveness of the play beyond the evening of its performance. It's as if Kostya's avant-garde play, quickly shut down by its anguished young author at the beginning of Chekhov's play, begins to continue in one's mind after the abrupt yet laconic conclusion of Seagull. " Conclusion": what an inconclusive ending this is, for all but poor Kostya himself: the contemplation remains, will remain among Chekhov's characters, remains for those of us fortunate to have seen this fine production.

The White Snake is also an "adaptation", this time of an ancient Chinese story, and also a restoration os sorts, in that it returns its audience to the blend of entertainment and instruction, goofy comedy and poetic contemplation — there's that word again — that propels Chinese opera. (And commedia dell'arte, and Mozart-da Ponte, and…)

Story: Snake studies philosophy, yearns to learn human experience, disguises self as beautiful woman, seduces innocent tradesman, is exposed by Buddhist monk, returns to her mountain.

Zimmerman's script, developed from the plot sketch during the course of rehearsals, contains the vivacity of commedia improvisation within the voice of a thoughtful and studious playwright. There is one element I found jarring: the ensemble in the pit — flute, cello, and percussion — relied heavily on foursquare structures and conventional Western tonal harmony for the collectively generated musical chinoiserie that helps articulate the entertainment's progress. Where Zimmerman's direction and script adapt Chinese opera to the American stage, the musicians, I thought, seek to imitate it, constantly distracting my attention.

Still, there's a lot to like here. There is real poetry, pathos, and philosophy in Snake's predicament, ably and beautifully projected by Amy Kim Waschke (new to OSF), and poignancy in the role of Xu Xian, nicely taken by Christopher Livingston; and Tanya McBride and Jack Willis find just the right amount of brashness in the comic-relief roles of Green Snake and Fa Hai, the villainous monk.

Zimmerman's White Snake often made me think of Michael McClure's wonderful Gargoyle Cartoons of forty and fifty years ago. It's sad that neglect of the breakthroughs of that period has occasioned so much ignorance and the occasional re-invention, but it's reassuring, I suppose, that artistic truth will now and then, as here, bring a historically imperative notion back to contemporary life and relevance. Something else for that superbly enlightened serpent to contemplate, back on the eternal mountain she shares, I'm sure, with Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov.

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