Adam Melnick, artistic director of the Laboratory for International Theatrical Exchange (or LITE Company) and the driving force behind the four-year-old Chekhov NOW! Festival, couldn't agree more. Too often, he says, the Chekhov productions we see nowadays are reverential to the point of dullness. They're too careful, too white-gloved -- "too fussy," says Melnick. "Chekhov's stories are so fantastic; they touch the core. But when they're put in these fussy situations, which we think is correct, they lose their value for today." The goal of Chekhov NOW! is "to get at the beating heart of these stories, because they're so great."
With Hyoung Taek Limb, a pal from directing school at Columbia, Melnick presented the first Chekhov NOW! festival four years ago at the Access Theater downtown, the pair's first effort to reclaim Anton from the fussies. The original plan, Melnick now concedes with a laugh, might have been just a tad ambitious. "We thought, 'Let's put together a festival of every dramatic piece Chekhov ever wrote.' We contacted Access Theater, they gave us two spaces, and we said, 'Okay. In three weeks, we're going to do everything!'" As it turned out, Melnick and Limb did not succeed in doing "everything," but they did offer 20 productions. "It was chaotic, it was crazy, but it went very well," according to Melnick. And, unlike many annual festivals, which swell to larger and larger proportions with each subsequent year, "we've realized, over the last few years, that less is more."
It's not just Chekhov, either. Melnick, who is himself directing Rothchild's Fiddle (an adaptation of a Chekhov short story), speaks excitedly about Moscow, a new musical from a company called Playwrights' Arena out of California. It concerns "three guys in this basement room; they don't know who they are or what they're doing there, and the only thing they have to guide them is the text of Three Sisters." Didn't see that coming, did you? Neither did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Moscow won both the Audience Award and the Fringe First Award in 1998.
Also among the offerings in Chekhov NOW! this year: a "cover version" of The Cherry Orchard by Festival stalwarts The Jovial Crew; Gull, a reconstruction of Chekhov's The Seagull, making its second appearance at the festival; and an exploration of identity in 19th century Russia called The Anna Project, created by the LITE Company members themselves. So you might say that this is not your grandparents' Chekhov festival. "Simply, we're looking for innovative takes on the works of Anton Chekhov," is how Campbell describes the type of material they like. This year, none of the plays included deal directly with the life of the playwright -- but, Campbell notes, "there's a big lobby installation that has historical artifacts and things like that."
In America, says Melnick, Chekhov's work has long been closely associated with one particular school of acting: the realism of the Moscow Art Theater, of Stanislavsky and his offshoots. As a result, he feels, Anton sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. "Part of the impetus for the festival is that I have done -- and Hyoung had done -- theater abroad, where the approach to Chekhov is much freer than here," Melnick explains. In contrast, the Europeans approach Chekhov "the way we approach Shakespeare here, by putting the text in a variety of contexts.
"We wanted to create a middle ground between the avant-garde and traditional productions," says Melnick. "There's experimentation, but it's experimentation towards making good theater. There are people like Anne Bogart [with whom Melnick studied at Columbia] who say, 'Text is dead, story is dead, and now we can do whatever we want.' I consider myself a bit more conservative than that. The way you tell a story now is different than the way you told it in 1905, because culture and consciousness have changed. But that doesn't mean that the stories aren't still good!"