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Elisabeth Waterston in Lady with a Lapdog
(Photo © Ken Reynolds)
Anton Chekhov's short story Lady With a Lapdog has that Russian split personality which, rightly or wrongly, observers such as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson have attributed to swaddling clothes -- passivity when swaddled, wild abandon when released. In American Repertory Theatre's adaptation, the contrasting modes are seen in a monotonous delivery of text broken occasionally by outbursts in which characters interrupt each other rapturously.

The ponderous bits are like listening to interviews with the slow-talking guy on Bob & Ray's old radio show -- without the humor. In contrast, the actors' physical expressiveness and the lights, sound effects, costumes, and set pieces are vibrant and engaging. If the script were a quarter of its two-hour, no-intermission running time and performed in pantomime, that would almost be enough; one could enjoy Lady With a Lapdog as a piece of performance art, like a René Magritte painting in motion. The sunlit beach, the floating expanse of blue sky and water where the idle rich bounce playfully, the call of sea birds, the striped cabanas, and the miming are great. About the only lines that wouldn't work as pantomime are the numerous variations on "If you have a toothache, rejoice and be happy that not all of your teeth are in pain."

The story, in brief: Dmitry Gurov, a jaded banker and paterfamilias played by Stephen Pelinski, visits Yalta looking for one more extramarital adventure. Along with the other gentlemen sunbathers (Trey Burvant and Robert Olinger), he soon focuses on a mysterious younger woman with a parasol (Elisabeth Waterston as Anna Sergeyevna). Accustomed to women who take dalliances as lightly as he does, he is unprepared for deeper waters.

Anna Sergeyevna has fled to Yalta alone but for a Pomeranian dog (unseen). She is bored in her marriage, "dying of curiosity" (for her, that's not just an expression; she really sounds like curiosity is killing her) and longing for "something better." What she gets is the glib Gurov, with whom she falls in love to the point of obsession. By degrees, Gurov becomes obsessed, too. After a return to their respective cities, they haunt each other. Gurov hallucinates: "In the evenings, she would stare at him from the bookcases, the fireplace, from the corners of the room." Inevitably, the lovers resume the affair that has become their only reality.

"Life is one unpleasant thing, but making it beautiful isn't hard," says Chekhov. Gurov and Anna make their lives beautiful, but that beauty involves pain. Anna finds that she no longer has any hope of happiness. Gurov plumbs a deeper layer in himself but "everything he didn't lie to himself about was kept hidden from others." As "birds caught and forced to live in separate cages," the lovers must accept that most of their days will be spent apart in dismal boredom. Chekhov comments, "Be happy in the knowledge that it could have been worse."

Robert Olinger, Stephen Pelinski, Elisabeth Waterston,
and Trey Burvant in Lady with a Lapdog
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
The triumph of the ART production is the look of it: the Magritte bowler hats, the boat floating in the void, the backlit sand that the lovers pour on each other, the giant drop cloth that -- in the manner of Zeus making love to imprisoned Danae in a shower of gold -- delivers sand from Gurov on high to the imprisoned Anna, and the way that brick walls stage right and stage left box in the protagonists.

But the monotony! The actors narrate for Chekhov, blending his philosophy with what the characters feel. In Orianda, near Yalta, Anna contemplates the "monotonous dull roar of the sea below." Gurov provides the Chekhovian gloss. "So it will roar with the same dull indifference when we are no more...In the complete [long pause] indifference to the life and death of each of us lies the promise of our salvation." And in the "continuous motion of life on earth," Gurov/Chekhov finds "unending perfection." Monotonous perfection. The drawn-out savoring of every beach-pebble word is rough on an audience otherwise enchanted by the production values. What can you do? "Be happy in the knowledge that it could have been worse."

Lady With a Lapdog was adapted and directed by Kama Ginkas, a professor at Finland's Swedish Theatre Academy and head of directing at the Moscow Art Theatre School. The set is the achievement of Sergey Barkhin, who also adapted the costumes designed by Tatiana Barkhina for an earlier Ginkas production. The lighting design is by Michael Chybowski and the evocative sound effects are by David Remedios. Leonid Desyatnikov composed the engaging festival-like music and romantic violin bridges.

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