Unless you are willing to look beyond the superficial, the great artists of the past can seem untouchable and unrelatable. However, this play is a welcome defiance of that prejudice with two great actors bringing the all too short romance of the playwright Anton Chekhov and the actress Olga Knipper to vibrant life.
While I usually do not care for dedicated self-contained romance stories, this story has an enthralling passion with master actors performing those luminaries’ correspondence. With that voluminous resource—about 400 letters from a passionate six year relationship—the romance of these greats of Russian theatre takes on a depth of personality and emotional content as few other historical relationships have ever granted to posterity.
Beyond that is an intriguing look at the world of Russian theatre at the turn of the 20th century through the eyes on some of its greatest contributors who were on a first name basis with literary contemporaries like Leo Tolstoy. In that realm, there is a human drama of its own as Chekhov struggles against the age old conflict of creative differences as he finds the director of his supposed comedy, The Cherry Orchard, interpreting it as a serious drama much to his indignation.
What makes their performance all the more remarkable is that they barely interact beyond speaking to each other from their reading desks. As such, it is their performances by word and simple gesture that convey their characters with remarkable clarity and passion that brings their characters to life. When they finally do interact completely and in character, it feels like a true consummation of a relationship far beyond the physical even as it reaches its end.
To make the thespian effect complete, the players are well costumed with rich period dress that evokes late Tsarist Russia with visual perfection. In addition, the stagecraft is both gloriously simple and ornate with beautifully arranged reading desks that position the players not only in place, but in era as well. That is neatly complemented with two adjustable screens that illustrate the play’s theme with considerable power in a variety of ways.
Historical figures and their concerns can seem distant to a casual view. However, this play will bring this pair into a powerful focus.