Moscow on the Liffey

Aris Theatre’s new production of two one-act plays by Brian Friel reveals the strange affinity between Friel’s Ireland and Chekhov’s Russia.

by Andrew Alexander

June 20, 2019

Featured image: Christina Leidel and Eric Lang perform in Brian Friel’s The Yalta Game, an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Lady with the Pet Dog

Atlanta’s Aris Theatre turns its gaze significantly eastward for its latest show. The company — which typically performs plays by Irish and English playwrights — takes on two short works by Chekhov by way of Irish playwright Brian Friel. The show runs at 7 Stages Theatre Back Stage through June 23.

Friel, most renowned for his plays set in the fictional Irish village of Ballybeg including Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing at Lughnassa, adapted the great Russian playwright’s work throughout his life, and Aris here tackles a strong pair from 2001: The Bear, based on an early Chekhov comedy by the same name, and The Yalta Game, based on Chekhov’s most famous short story The Lady with the Pet Dog.

It’s tempting to say that Friel ‘deeply immerses’ himself in Chekhov’s world, or something like that, but as the plays make clear: Friel pretty much lived in Chekhov’s world. During his lifetime, Friel was often referred to as “the Irish Chekhov,” and the moniker fit. Neither playwright sought to spin out big epics or myths in the great traditions of their respective countries, but instead dove headfirst into the aesthetics of inconsequentiality. Any grand ideals soft-collide with petty realities. Though Russia and Ireland would seemingly have as little in common as any two places ever could, they practically seem like bordering neighbors here.

Friel made his translations, not from Russian, but from stodgy old Edwardian English editions, giving the dialogue the lanky, agile cadence of natural, modern Irish speech. An indication of this rather unusual strategy’s surprising success: characters speak about catching the train to Moscow, or they call for the servant girl Dasha to bring in more vodka, in a thick Irish brogue, and I barely blinked.

Tamil Periasamy, Erin Greenaway, and Chris Schulz perform in Brian Friel’s The Bear, an adaption of a comic one-act play by Chekhov.

The Bear is an early work by Chekhov, a quick comic flourish about a battle of the sexes between Elena Popova (Erin Greenway), a prim young widow who feigns devotion to her deceased philandering husband as a strategy to maintain her dignity and isolation, and the rude, rough slob Gregory Smirnov (Tamil Periasmy), who disturbs her peace by coming to collect on a substantial debt her husband owed to him. The plot has a one-track, runaway-train quality to it; the metaphorical duel between the sexes hilariously threatens to become literal. On the surface, the frenetic, vaudeville quality makes it very unlike the most famous Chekhov plays. Still, the ironic wit and insight into human character are unmistakable.  (The Bear, though not the most frequently performed of Chekov’s plays nowadays, was actually among his biggest hits during his lifetime and brought the author royalties throughout his life; its charm is immediate, and the basic comic set-up continues to be replicated thousands of times in a billion or more romantic comedies).

Director Kathleen McManus plays up the farce, often with mixed results: the physical comedy can feel too broad, and the antics often get too frenzied (The comic servant Luka’s bald wig in the style of a Tim Conway sketch was puzzling and distracting). Nonetheless, there are wonderful touches: Elena’s frank practicality as she goes off to search for her husband’s old dueling pistols, or the way she confronts Smirnov with a difficult truth: “You know you’re a bully.” His abject reaction indicates she’s not only right, he’s also a masochist who has longed to be put in his place.

The Yalta Game brings on something completely different, a staged version of Chekhov’s melancholy story The Lady with the Pet Dog, about a desperate affair between two married people in a seaside resort who find in the end that they don’t have the courage to abandon their ordinary lives to be with each other. On a bare-boned set in the 7 Stages raw backspace, the setting Yalta emerges as a sort of warped existential purgatory under Tim McDonough’s direction.

The transfer of the short story Lady with the Pet Dog from page to stage requires that the actors pretend there’s a little dog running around. At first, it seems chintzy and silly, but Friel toys cleverly with this necessary device, and it starts to develop some weird, comic, Beckett-like resonances: Dmitry (Eric Lang), the constant joker, kids about not being able to see the dog as Anna (a fantastic Christina Leidel) laughingly insists it’s right at his feet. Then the dog really does disappear, and they have to go look for it.

In the short story, we can surmise what the lead female character might be thinking and feeling, but she does remain rather distant, removed, even something of a cypher, which is part of her initial allure to Dmitry. But in Friel’s retelling, the two participants speak as equals, which adds an interesting perspective. In the end, no matter if the accent is Russian or Irish, the words from Chekhov or Friel, the sad underpinnings of their declarations of love for each other come across loud and clear.

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.

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