Anton Chekhov once wrote that he wanted to make people aware of how "bad and dreary" their lives were in Russia at the end of the 19th century. A glimpse of tragedy onstage would inspire radical change, he hoped. Whether Chekhov's work engendered change on the larger stage is a matter for historians to debate, but the work itself is constantly being reinterpreted and, indeed, radically changed. For instance, Ivanov is undergoing a modern transformation in the hands of Seattle's Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson (no relation), founders of dance-theater venture 33 Fainting Spells. Joined by New Yorker Linas Phillips, Hanson and Hanson spliced the story of depressed Nikolai Ivanov, his tubercular wife Anna, and home-wrecker Sasha, with the experiences of astronauts visiting space for the first time. The result is Our Little Sunbeam, presented by the Walker Art Center and playing this weekend at the Southern Theater.
Ivanov is often dismissed as one of Chekhov's lesser efforts, but that didn't deter 33 Fainting Spells. "We wouldn't have wanted to do The Cherry Orchard," explains Dayna Hanson. "We enjoy taking something marginalized and drawing life out of it. There's a sense of tragedy, existential entrapment, and hopelessness that you see in many of [Chekhov's] characters, almost to the point of farce in Ivanov. Nothing is redeemed."
Still, the artists wanted a counterpoint to that gloominess and found it in the 1960s space program. "We stumbled upon a script of a countdown," Hanson continues. "The excitement of that time is in such sharp contrast to Ivanov. You could look at the earth and see it was small. That really changed the astronauts' perspective." Recordings of astronaut interviews and video are now part of the piece, as are a dozen movement gestures inspired by documentary footage. Hanson, Hanson, and Phillips then whittled away at Ivanov, settling on the play's central characters. Phillips turned a monologue into rap, the patriarch Lebedev appears as a roadie, Waylon Jennings sings on the soundtrack, and Gaelen Hanson performs Anna's death as a dance. Our Little Sunbeam, a reference to a sarcastic line aimed at the morose Ivanov in the play, is another example of 33 Fainting Spells' dedication to postmodern pastiche and quirky nuance. "We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the detail around the edges," says Dayna Hanson. "We give them equal value. It's like we take what's in the parentheses and put an exclamation mark after it."