Gary Graves’ adaptation of Che-khov’s An Anonymous Story, at Central Works, opens like a Magritte painting with captions. The “anonymous” of the title, Stepan (Richard Frederick) as he’s known, is a footman in a 19th-century parlor, who confides to the audience: “I’m not a footman.”
He alludes to spying on the bureaucrat he’s bound to, whose father is important in the government. And spy he does, with a melancholy air, commenting on but not otherwise reacting to what he sees.
What Stepan sees has no political content to relay to the “Faction,” but instead is the behavior of the entropic upper classes in Russia. His master Orlov (Jordan Winer) and his somewhat dissolute crony Gruzin (Dennis Markam) rehearse to each other their studied skepticism concerning everything, including a display of self-mockery—an absurdist negativity long before the Theater of the Absurd—all the while snapping their fingers for the servants glued to the wall as if they were not present, gliding forward to pour drinks or serve food to these self-professing men of the world, their eyes only occasionally revealing emotion.
And Stepan begins to see his fellow servant—the maid (Sandra Schlecter as Polya), who has flirted with him and been rebuffed—pocketing valuables she encounters around the flat.
Polya fingers more than a watch or two. She remarks to Stepan how wrong he is for the job, that he’s no servant. “Who are you?” she asks.
It’s an ongoing question, one Stepan begins to ask himself, occasionally sounding like a less jaded version of his “master.”
Then Zinaida (Cat Thompson) ar-rives, having left her husband to live with Orlov, who isn’t expecting her arrival. An awful comedy of overwrought devotion met by indifference, irritation and deceit is played out, observed by Stepan, who finds himself silently defensive of Zinaida.
So, in Chekhov’s inimitable mold, an unlikely triangle develops, seemingly as futile and dislocated as Orlov’s big words versus his little round of distractions.
But there’s much more to this scenario as it plays out—surprises, even—though the situation is never superseded, only turned inside-out.
As usual, Central Works has assembled the right cast for their uniquely collaborative method of developing a play with all the principals actively involved from the start. Schlechter and Frederick in particular turn in fine, subtle performances. And Cat Thompson makes Zinaida indelible, at once moving and pathetic, a woman who lives for the freedom to love, yet is shackled to her own desperate self-image.
Central Works co-founder Soren Oliver has directed the ensemble with a good touch, so that every action, however slight, has its own significance in the midst of a kind of revolving stalemate that’s always absorbing for the audience.
The old salon in the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club, where Central Works has staged its productions for much of its 20 years, is like another character in the play. It seems as if every square inch of the room, not originally intended for performances, is employed in the action, rendering it into both the space these characters inhabit and the theater—almost in the medical sense, like an operating theater—where their tangled interactions are played out before us.
There are moments where the story, begun in 1887, is reminiscent of Turgenev’s short novels, like Rudin or First Love. But Chekhov bridled at being compared to his great humanist predecessor. It’s possible the familiar situations are summoned up to deliberately show the difference. Stepan’s denunciation of Orlov, directed to Zinaida to show that he feels a bond between them: “He doesn’t understand Turgenev!”
What Chekhov supplies in place of Turgenev’s empathy goes beyond repeating through realistic observation—like his hapless faux footman—the world-weariness of his characters, beyond satire or the irony Stepan derides in Orlov and Gruzin’s show of mockery and self-mockery.
Chekhov instead reveals a rare humor—once again, absurdist before the Absurdists (in some ways, Beckett, another storyteller-turned-dramatist, is very close to Chekhov)—which captures the characters in their awkward opposition to their situation, to themselves, and the strange opposition of stepping back and observing all of it, whether by Stepan, the anonymous narrator and seeming protagonist, the author or the reader/audience.
It’s something seldom seen in productions of Chekhov, except in Russian-language versions, humor being wedded to language. Nabokov’s essay on this type of Russian humor is reprinted in the appendix of the Norton Critical Edition of Chekhov’s plays.
Graves’ adaptation and the Central Works staging of Chekhov’s tale aptly opt for a truer irony—one of silence, which reveals what’s missing—with gentle touches of melancholy and comedy, for a very satisfying performance, superior to most productions of Chekhov’s major plays.
A Russian friend once remarked that Chekhov had a special sense of humor, rarely caught in productions, going beyond the dark or jaded perspective of either doctor or sick man, because Chekhov himself was both—doctor and terminally ill consumptive—and an observant writer, originally of short comic pieces for page and stage, as well. Ezra Pound liked to quote Turgenev: “Nothing but death is irremediable.” Chekhov wrote as if seeing everything in the midst of life from a step removed—and one foot in the grave.
This sense of humor akin to the idea that Pirandello—yet another storyteller-turned-playwright—realized, and is discussed brilliantly by Nicola Chiaromonte in The Worm of Consciousness.
Such humor shows “a sense of the opposite ... of what you find instead of what you expect to find,” as Pirandello put it, one character slipping back into the mold while trying to realize the opposite, and another, seemingly stuck in that mold, revealing the opposite sense of his apparent self-caricature. It also allows both author and spectator to catch themselves looking on, capturing their own thoughts and emotions in response to what they see, opening up a new horizon of reflection and self-reflection.
In other words, a complete theatrical experience, action happening onstage and within the audience. Not a static picture of “how things (or people) really are,” but the unending, revolving drama of things in time, surprising, unpredictable, yet comprehensible, by the very fact of being acted out and watched, thought about. As the chorus intones in the midst of one of Euripides’ tragedies, “Man is sometimes good, sometimes evil.”
AN ANONYMOUS STORY
Presented by Central Works at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sundays through March 28 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant. $14–$25 (sliding scale). 558-1381. centralworks.org.