Some notes on watching the fourth act of our Sunday afternoon performance.
It's a very good house, full and generous of spirit. The fourth act begins in darkness, after the house lights go down and Masha is offstage calling for Konstantin. It's the first many echoes of what has come before -- in the first act Masha goes off calling for Konstantin after he has fled the fiasco of his play. Masha is calling Konstantin every minute of her life, and he never answers. . . She enters, lights the lamp--there's nothing but darkness and the wind howling in the chimney. Her husband, Medvedenko says they really should take down the remains of the stage that was built for Konstantin's play--"it's stuck there, bare and repulsive as a skeleton, with the curtain flapping in the wind. Another echo: in the first act Doctor Dorn asks for the curtain to be opened, because closed it seems a little "spooky." In the semi-darkness our stage, with the light leaking through our vertical boards, looks skeletal, and a little spooky too . . There's talk of babies and old people, how they are needy,how they are the same, and this is visually reinforced when Polina and Konstantin come in to make up a bed for the dying Sorin in the study, which looks like a child's bed. . . Everything has changed: Masha and Medvedenko are married now; they have a child. Time has passed. Everything is the same--the married couple are still far apart (as Medvendko says in the first act, "my soul and your soul have no common point of connection"). He is still fussy and anxious; she's still sad and taking snuff. They sound like a married couple. In one minute Chekhov gives a complete relationship. Masha is determined to rip her unrequited love out of her heart; just as she was two years ago. The audience laughs when she says,"Once love has dug its way into your heart you just have to gouge it out again," and they laugh again when we hear music from the next room,and Polina says, "That's Kostya playing. Means he's despressed." By now the perpetual unhappiness of the characters is a source of comedy--but just then we see Masha silently dancing a few waltz steps with the music, and the deep yearning of her heart is wordless and poignant. These ten seconds alone explain why actors love Chekhov--why I love Chekhov. Kate Berry is so lovely and gawky here. . . Polina, as usual, offers wholehearted and entirely unproductive sympathy--she's one of those people who are genuinely moved by her loved one's pain, yet ends up always talking about herself: endearing, familiar, annoying, ridiculous, human. .. Medvedenko as usual never gets a horse to ride on, and as usual he is always saying goodbye and never leaving the stage . . . Sorin and Dorn enter and have a duet, replaying themes of the second act (he still wants to live, and the Doctor, both sympathetic and strangely distant, offers him no comfort at all--the doctor is a strange one, with his insistence on the dispassionate view of death and the existence of a universal soul--the first of the act's echoes of Konstantin's first act play). . . Konstantin enters, sits at Sorin's feet on a stool--like a baby chair-- and tells us Nina's tale of seduction, misery, child's death, and stage debut--all the lurid material Chekhov rarely shows us on stage.. . Noises off, and Arkadina, Trigorin and Shamrayev enter---Jane Fromme in a wonderful dark beaded red outfit, glittering softly by candlelight . . the actress does know how to dress. They're all just the same too, except not, really. The "great actress" is even more desperate to assert her continuing triumphant success (though she's no tour de force--she's forced to tour); and the great writer looks a lot more shallow now---the old man won't shake his hand. . . Masha gets a another good laugh when Trigorin asks if her marriage is happy, and she does nothing at all . .. A game of Lotto is played, "it's a boring game, but it's not so bad once you get used to it", just like Clue or Monopoly . . then it's time for dinner and the the stage is cleared for the astonishing denoument, the scene with Nina and Konstantin, so beautifully played by Jamie and Ben---I think it's one of the best ten minutes ever seen on our stage. A scene whose beauty and poignancy is also built on echoes--Konstantin talks about his cliched long winded writing--"the strains of the grand piano, dying away in the still, sweet smelling air. "-- an echo of Trigorin, his writing rival, who in act two saw a cloud that looked like a grand piano, and who noted the sickly sweet smell of heliotrope .. Nina caught in the whirlpool of life, fighting to keep her head up, trapped in a short story, fighting to get free, fighting through her fog, her past, the wind howling outside .. every single word she says is wonderful here. . the spell suddenly broken by laughter of her former lover in the next room, she rushes to the door, pressing herself against it to hear, the light between the walls catching her face, the walls and the door like a membrane between her and the lover who lost interest in her; this is one of the most beautiful moments in the history of our theater, and it passes in an instant--the entire scene flickers like a candle between the girl overflowing with feeling and the boy frozen and motionless. . . Nina is speaking of her new life as a real actress, and the richness of watching a real actress (Jamie Ann Romero) play a young woman (Nina) who tells us she is an actress who sometimes acts badly but then sometimes feels beautiful onstage is kind of unfathomnable . . then the last of the great echoes, Nina's reprise of lines from Konstantin's play in the first act--lines which then seemed wooden, pretentious, juvenile but which now ring with quiet and poetic authority and truth . . "and in the lime groves, the May beetles are silent." A pause, a last quick embrace and she's gone into the night,and the rest of the play is pynctuated silence . . the silence of Konstantin's destruction of his manuscript (Chekhov wanted this to go on fortwo minutes; it seems excruciating to witness it for one on our stage); the laughter of the returning guests . . the meaningless presentation of the stuffed seagull and the sharp startling crack of gunshot. . . more silence as the doctor goes off to investigate . . and then returns to reassure the room that it was only a bottle of ether bursting in his medical bag . . . then taking Trigorin aside to tell him to get Arkadina out of there because Konstantin Gavrilovich has just shot himself . . the lights fade and the entire room drops for a moment into silence because we are not sure the play is over (as Arakdina has just said, "for a moment, everything went black"). Chekhov deliberately ends the play between notes-- Ibsen would have had the doctor make the announcement, Arkadina would have fainted and the the curtain would fall in a tableau. Here there is no tableau . . the lotto game is going on . . the news has not been shared . .. and the play simply drops into the void, leaving the audience rather surprised with the lights come up on the cast taking bows. .. I have rarely, if ever, seen an audience so unprepared to applaud at a play's close.
It's just an amazing play.