11 August 2007 (Sat), Tokyo
A new play in Japanese by the prolific Inoue Hisashi about the life of Chekhov, whose works had a powerful effect on the development of modern Japanese drama. This is Inoue’s first show to be set outside of Japan. The starry cast included Otake Shinobu and Matsu Takako, either of whom could sell out a theatre on her own. With both, not to mention some other well-known veterans, tickets quickly became scarce for the unusually long two-month run.
The show was a somewhat rambling biography of the writer from his youth up. He was played at different stages of his life by the production’s four actors, all of whom also played other roles throughout the show. It was a bit complicated sometimes to know just who each was supposed to be. I suppose the director wanted age-appropriate actors for Chekhov at each point, a nice idea in theory, but he would have done better to choose a single actor to maintain consistency and reduce confusion.
The show, though not quite a musical, was expressed at times through songs, most of which I could have done without. At the opening, the actors sang a song explaining who Chekhov is and why we should want to know him, an expository device that seemed unnecessary. Inoue really isn’t giving the audience much credit here; for instance, they sing, “He wrote four great plays!”, something that’s abundantly clear by the end of the show anyway. Hopefully the playwright will chuck this in a revival and just start the story from the beginning.
Apparently, Chekhov loved vaudeville and longed to write for that genre, and it was that impulse that spurred him to the theatre. He felt that the one thing that humans had above other animals was the ability to laugh and make others laugh. That does cast an interesting light on his plays. The show covers his relationship with his family, his medical studies, his short story writing, his love affairs and other points in a rather episodic approach. The first act was a bit tedious other than some individual moments. There was a scene with a burglar that was rather silly and went on too long.
The second act improved greatly (an opinion completely opposite, incidentally, from the person who scored our tickets) as the actress, played by Otake, entered Chekhov’s life. Otake hammed it up big-time, but that was perfectly appropriate in context. The restaurant scene where she first attracts Chekhov was terrific. My favorite part, certainly the one with the most sustained laughs, came with the entrance of Tolstoy. He was played as an eccentric old man with his list of be-thankful-it-wasn’t-worse scenarios, i.e., “If you’re hit by a horse, just be glad it wasn’t a train”-type pronouncements. The actor in that role, Namase Katsuhisa, squeezed every bit of humor out of the role in a confidently broad performance. I liked it when Tolstoy pointed out that whereas most stories go from the starting point to the end, Chekhov’s do precisely the opposite. There was a great moment when Chekhov and his wife, left alone in the room, fall to the floor in hilarity, initially reacting to the oddball Tolstoy but gradually just enjoying the moment. All their troubles seemed far away at that point, a nice testament to the healing qualities of laughter.
Strangely, the final scene in the show involves a soliloquy by Matsu Takako (as Chekhov’s sister) talking about herself rather than about Chekhov, a confusing shift in perspective. At this point, a number of characters re-entered in a recap, and because of the multiple roles played by each actor in the course of the show, it was difficult to tell who was being portrayed at this point. This made for an ineffective ending.
One big problem I had with the show was the songs. The author attached unrelated lyrics to existing songs such as “Sing For Your Supper” (and at least one other Rodgers and Hart number), many of which were written decades after Chekhov had died. They had no place in the 19th-century Russian setting. Maybe the writer was trying to reflect Chekhov’s fascination with vaudeville, but these songs were in fact not from vaudeville either. The impression is that they were inserted completely at random, having nothing whatsoever to do with the sentiment being portrayed on stage or with Chekhov himself. I was probably the only audience member who noticed, but it did show some sloppiness in the creators’ research.
The actors were all fine. Otake and Namase stood out for me, partly because their roles were so showy, but there wasn’t a weak link in the six-person cast. I’m still not crazy about the idea of so many people playing Chekhov: it was confusing and added nothing to the show. Otherwise the director kept things fairly simple and flowing, an approach that worked well.
I assume the author’s theme was the power of laughter. It certainly worked for his show, where laughter was the one sustained honest emotion. The lurch towards sentimentality towards the end was unearned, and I had the feeling that he could easily have trimmed the three-hour play by at least 30 minutes. The friend who got us our tickets commented that there was nothing that resonated with him after the final curtain, and I can see his point. I would recommend this show generally for the acting rather than the book, but I might have thought differently if I had come in at the second act. An interesting show.