BWW Review: Quotidian's THE LADY WITH THE LITTLE DOG a Gorgeous Chamber Piece
For years, Bethesda's Quotidian Theatre Company has honed its reputation for low-key drama with little in the way of explosions and cliffhangers-the flip side of this discreet approach being the potential for great emotional rewards, for those who journey with them. Having proven themselves with a wide variety of playwrights both here and overseas, it comes as no surprise that Quotidian's co-founder Stephanie Mumford has turned her eye once again towards one of the most famous raconteurs of everyday life, Russian satirist Anton Chekhov.
A legend in theatre circles, Chekhov's reputation today rests primarily on full-length stage works like The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, along with a parcel of hilarious one-act comedies ("The Bear, "The Marriage Proposal"-if you haven't seen them yet, add them immediately to your bucket list). But being the grapho-maniac that he was-writing paid better than his medical practice by a long shot-he also produced exquisite portraits of the lives of Russia's middle and upper classes in short story form.
The Lady with the Little Dog is one of Chekhov's most famous stories, and has inspired any number of treatments before now-one film starring Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni is vivid in my memory-but adapting a short piece like this for the stage can be a challenge. If you pad it too much the concise vision of the story is gone, and with that goes much of the emotional wallop. And for those who love this story, the idea of pairing it with anything else seems a waste.
It is especially gratifying to see that Mumford, with her impeccable eye for period detail, has taken The Lady with the Little Dog and created an intimate one-hour visit to late 19th-century Russia. Beginning in an idyllic resort on the Black Sea, Mumford uses live music from the period - performed impeccably by Christine Khrarazian, accompanied by pianist Zachary Roberts-and a sequence of film footage and projections of seascapes by the Russian artist Aivazovsky to bring us close to Chekhov's world.
As Anna, Chekhov's heroine, Chelsea Mayo captures the quiet desperation of a woman who has been taught her whole life to deny herself everything-and who genuinely struggles with the prospect of happiness, especially because it comes so furtively. She is romanced by the shore at Yalta by Dmitry, played here with relish by Ian Blackwell Rogers, an admitted roué but one who has found in Anna the soul-harbor he had sought for so many years. Their respective spouses are played here by pianist Roberts and violinist Kharazian; in keeping with the story's conceit, both actors portray them as the very models of stale conformity, each creating an emotional void which Anna and Dmitri are desperate to escape.
Guiding us gently through the story's twists and turns is none other than Anton Chekhov himself, played with discretion and charm by David Dubov. One of Mumford's most effective strokes here is to have Anton interact constantly with his characters, so that the tale is not so much an authorial fait accompli as matter of negotiation with the characters themselves.
On the surface, and especially the surface of today's cynical culture, The Lady with the Little Dog lacks a certain punch: we have a couple, each married to someone else, fall madly in love by the sea and then struggle to sustain their affair as they return to their domestic lives. But we have forgotten how treacherous these affairs were back in the late 19th century when Chekhov first conceived the piece. Back in the day, adulterous women always got the raw end of the deal and fictional wives who cheated on their husbands didn't fare terribly well either; between Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (note the name, hardly a coincidence), the prospects for even surviving a novel in one piece were slim to none. Adulteresses onstage, meanwhile, had developed the truly annoying habit of growing consumptive (or something) and dying, tragically, down-stage center, every single time. (I suppose you had to have been there.)
Leave it to Chekhov to point out how ridiculous this was, how it was possible-and, given the strictures of those days, desirable-for women to survive and thrive in such a situation. The affair at the heart of The Lady with the Little Dog also gives Chekhov the opportunity to comment upon the everyday tragedy that still befalls so many: too often, our friends only make a show of domestic tranquility and conformity, and the truth of their lives, their innermost selves, is stifled. Too often it is only in secret, away from those who "know" them, that they can truly be themselves.
Mumford, in the DIY spirit that has pervaded Quotidian from the very beginning, has invented a complex set design filled with period touches, and Don Slater's lighting makes good use of the limited stage space at the Writer's Center. One quibble here is that the side of the stage devoted to Dmitri's domestic life is obscured by a portion of her multi-layered set. Audience members seated too far to the left will miss some charming details to his Moscow apartment (the kids especially, who magically materialize and in keeping with the old dictum are seen but rarely heard). And although the concept of privacy is crucial to Chekhov's design in the original story, there is perhaps a bit too much privacy to the design of Anna's private room on the opposite side of the stage. These issues are minor, however, and Mumford has a keen eye for tableaux that capture the actors at vital points in the narrative.
The Lady with the Little Dog runs July 8 through August 7 at The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets phone 1-800-838-3006, extension 1, or go to www.brownpapertickets.com.