A hundred and nine years after his death, Chekhov still looms large over the world’s dramatists. In Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, a delightful Christopher Durang work that has just moved to Broadway, Chekhov serves as inspiration for a contemporary study. By contrast, for the Chilean Guillermo Calderón – whose 2006 drama Neva has just opened at the Public Theater’s Anspacher space in its English-language premiere – the weight is historical.
The action takes place in January 1905. Six months have passed since Chekhov’s death in Badenweiler, Germany, an event recreated brilliantly by Raymond Carver (shortly before his own death) in the 1987 short story Errand. Like Carver, Calderón evokes the moment when Chekhov and Olga Knipper, his German actress wife, down a round of deathbed champagne. In Calderón’s play, Knipper, who has come to St Petersburg to appear in The Cherry Orchard, recreates the ironically effervescent moment with the help of the two fictional actors, Masha and Aleko, who rehearse with her.
Initially, Neva, which has been translated by Andrea Thome, appears to be plaintive. Knipper, portrayed by Bianca Amato, arrayed in black, paces along the back wall, and the drama begins with Olga and Aleko (played gamely by Luke Robertson) quaffing vodka. Soon, they are up on a raised, red-covered platform that is so cramped I worried the actors might fall off.
The staging (by Calderón) wants us to sense how life in 1905 Russia has become claustrophobic and explosive. This volatility has expressed itself on the very day of the rehearsal, when a group of workers conducted a demonstration, attempting to deliver a petition to the Tsar. They were gunned down before they even reached the palace.
Various characters debate the massacre, with each representing (a bit too neatly) a particular point of view. Olga, whose memorable interpretation by Amato is so fervid that it nearly tips over into what we moderns might call melodrama, thinks education is key. Aleko, with a taste for passing along salacious details of backstage gossip, is quite measured. Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is the firebrand. Her commitment crests when she spectacularly delivers a monologue about what is to come. It says something about the encompassing quality of Chekhov that downtown, in the Calderón piece, we end with a rant about the future, while uptown, in the Durang, we conclude with a rant about the past. Some writers really do seem eternal.