At some time between 1878 and 1881, when he was between the ages of 18 and 21, Anton Chekhov wrote a four-act play that was subsequently rejected without being performed. The fair copy was destroyed by the author, and only the discovery of a copy, with no title page, in 1920, sixteen years after Chekhov's death, saved the work from vanishing from literary history. This play was published 1923 and has enjoyed a fairly rich stage history for a piece that is early, considered unfinished, untitled, and unwieldy -- it would run at least 5 hours in uncut form (and you thought Hamlet was long!). It has been adapted numerous times under various titles since its 1954 premiere in Sweden, including a four-hour version that played in 1997 at the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, the venue for which Chekhov originally wrote it. Now, NYC's Blessed Unrest adds to that tradition an immersive new 90-minute adaptation by Laura Wickens, Platonov, or A Play with No Name, to the New Ohio Theatre.
While Platonov takes its title from the play's debauched schoolmaster lothario, assured widow Anna (Irina Abraham) is equally if not more so its center. Anna occupies the financially troubled estate of her late husband, a general, where the play's characters come together in a summer atmosphere that is both literally and figuratively overheated. In addition to Anna and Platonov (Darrell Stokes)--who is married to proper, god-fearing Sasha (Ashley N. Hildreth), sister to kind-hearted if hedonistic doctor Nikolai (Taylor Valentine) -- we are introduced to Sofya (Becca Schneider), who is married to Sergei (Hildreth), Anna's stepson; Mariya (Javon Q. Minter), a student; and Porfiry (Minter), Anna's neighbor and a self-professed romantic. Rounding out the group are Osip (Schneider), a young man who styles himself as an outlaw, sleeping under the stars, and an atheist; and Kopecka (Valentine), an elderly servant. (Yes, we did make a chart of the characters as well as of the actors when composing this review.) Among this gathering, love and lust -- requited and unrequited, new and rekindled -- flow along multi-directional lines, many of which intersect with the handsome, charismatic Platonov and with marital status proving little obstacle. The game of chess (that perennial symbol) that Anna and Nikolai play during opening section of the play, a game in which although the king is the focus (and target), the queen is the most powerful, and in which winning demands sacrifice, gives us one lens through which to view the events of the play. Another lens is Hamlet, which Platonov refers to multiple times, another play in which the state of things has gone famously rotten (it is also possible that Kopecka's claim that evil has made itself known by turning up into down and making a hen crow like a rooster alludes to the upsets in nature that are reported following King Duncan's death in Macbeth, when day is night, owls kills falcons, and horses become cannibals). Platonov's intrigues, most of them romantic but one involving the sale of Anna's estate, play out against a backdrop of decline and decay, passions misguidedly flowering in a soil of boredom and wasted potential. References to smell, rot, and sickness form a loose motif; and Platonov sums up the feelings of stagnation and frustrated promise when he tells Sofya that he never became the Pushkin that she once thought that he was. The leanness of this adaptation serves only to heighten the significance of these elements.
Many of the characters' interactions are also suffused with vodka, and vodka bottles appear everywhere around the intimate performance space. Platonov is staged in the round, with the central performance area often defined by little more than a rug, and the performers use the entirety of the theater, including areas behind the audience, and rarely exiting, even for costume changes. The occasional crescendos built into the sound design, the striking physicality of much of the acting, and the overlapping and interruptions in the delivery of the dialogue all work with the space itself to create a captivating immediacy. This crisply directed production tosses the audience in in medias res and sweeps it along, the overlapping dialogue reflecting the web of the characters' entanglements, and the continuous action is itself Shakespearean in its unbroken flow across a bare stage. It is more than possible that one could map parallels and oppositions onto the symmetrically gender-blind doubling of all of the roles except Anna and Platonov, but we will limit ourselves here to saying that the entire cast does magnificent work. Valentine lends a melancholy undertone to his charmingly funny Nikolai. Stokes makes it easy to see why Platonov is the object of nearly everyone's desire and everyone's interest; he functions as one of the play's magnetic poles, and Abraham's Anna operates as the other. It is not entirely surprising when Anna makes an appearance as essentially a dominatrix; she is confident, does not suffer fools, and knows what she wants. Whether she can get it is another question entirely.
Platonov stands in for most of the characters when, late in the play, the rug on which he is seated in a chair is being rolled up towards him, trapping him in an ever-decreasing space. He, like many of the others, is a victim both of his actions and of his circumstances. In a city where one can't swing an actor-waiter without hitting an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, Blessed Unrest's Platonov brings familiar Chekhovian themes to refreshingly new life. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.