Chekov On the Prairie

I was enjoying Garrison Keillor on the radio yesterday, and of course it made me think of Chekov. (No, the playwright, not the pilot of the Enterprise.)

When I was a stage management intern at Juilliard, I worked on production of a Chekov play. The rehearsal process was amazing – we dug deep into that play, excavating profound character dimension from every nuance, boldly chasing rabbit trails of relationships far deeper than even Anton dared to go.

Every rehearsal concluded in exhaustion – but a joyful one. Finding the shadings of such a classic was its own reward.

Which was reinforced when we performed the play: the audience was mostly indifferent to it. We had dug so far away from the surface, only one who sat through rehearsals with us had any idea where we were.

We ended up with a performance for us; not for the audience.

I felt the same thing watching the movie PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. I am a huge fan of the radio show, and love the easy-going energy that accompanies Garrison Keillor’s spinning of that magical world of a lake lost in the staples in the Minnesota map.

Robert Altman, in putting together the movie, mistook easy-going for “going nowhere.” The film is a lackluster collection of performances that border on interesting, but never have a chance to settle.

The story consists of a series of setups, all the way until the final credits roll. There are no payoffs, just set ups.

The viewing experience was disappointing because I am such a fan of the radio show – and mostly because the radio writing is so tight. There is little waste in the weekly show, and all things –no matter how bizarre – connect to build a unified whole.

In the radio version, the affinity connecting the characters and actors is so palpable, one feels like a part of a community. In the film, the poor actors strain to try and force connections where the script forgets to give them one.

With lesser actors, this would have simply been a badly written show, but with the likes of Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline – actors that connect even without a script – this movie becomes a snub. The performances are so far removed from the audience, we are pointedly left out of community.

When I first heard the critic’s trash the movie, I ignored them. I thought that they just didn’t get the radio show, and maybe this was a movie for the fans. Alas, fans of the radio show should stick to the radio; this flick is only for those that worked on it.

Just my thoughts,

Sean

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3 responses to “Chekov On the Prairie”

  1. DanBuck says :

    Interesting observation. There is a “resurfacing” that a director, producer, the actors, whoever needs to do before a work of art is made public. The deepest levels of work must certainly inform the work, but the audience only gets one pass by, and they must be able to reap something from that first approach. Ideally, there’s rich enough work done, that those going back for seconds or thirds or eighty-sevenths can still gain insight. I have my actors write a note to their characters after our first read through. They must tell their characters of their first impressions, their sympathies, their confusions, the joy and pain they share with the character.Then I seal the envelopes until opening night. When they open them and read them, they have made a long evolution into their character and not only are they being addressed as recipient of the note, but they also remember where first time witnesses of their story will be.I don’t know how much of it high schoolers truly grasp, but in theory, it should help.

  2. Gaffney says :

    VEry interesting, the letter idea — a reminder of the journey, like mailing postcards to yourself from vacation. I may just have to steal that…

  3. DanBuck says :

    I’m sure I stole it. Feel free.

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