Man Bites Dog

"The water's just right for drowning in": Stephen Pelinski (suit coat) and friends in 'Lady with a Lapdog'
Michal Daniel

Anton Chekhov's prose is rife with the unsaid, his dispassionate reserve and urbane restraint spiced with the occasional sneak attack of unfiltered philosophizing. Lady with a Lapdog at the Guthrie Lab shatters moderation and confronts the audience with all the messiness beneath Chekhov's smooth surfaces. This bold production paints from a palate of subconscious turmoil that the short story on which it is based so assiduously tamped down--it gives full voice to the muted scream beneath Chekhov's understated, impossible world.

Chekhov's story gives us Dmitry, a world-weary banker trapped in a stale marriage who vacations without his family at the Black Sea resort of Yalta. There he meets Anna and her Pomeranian, and sees a fine opportunity to add to his considerable roster of empty conquests. Plans run awry when Dmitry finds himself with real feelings for Anna that eventually blossom into love. Anna loves Dmitry despite the fact that he is a shithead, and comes to Moscow as often as possible to continue their affair. By story's end, both are tormented by their double lives and can see no way to ever be happy.

In other words, a good, solid, Russian-style exploration of how lousy life is, always has been, and always will be. One might expect from this adaptation an evening of staid entertainment, but then one would not have heard of Kama Ginkas. Renowned in Russia for what he calls his "physiological" theater--work that provokes visceral reaction--Ginkas has staged Lady with a Lapdog as a surreal, swooping absurdity on a stark set. While Chekhov's original narrative is present, its depths are probed by slamming one scene into the next, nonstop, with nothing resembling our comforting old friend, the three-act structure.

Guthrie anchor Stephen Pelinski plays Dmitry, reprising the role from a prior staging at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre. He pulls off appropriate grizzled glamour and amused playboy condescension, but this is not a standard character portrayal. Pelinski plays to the crowd, enjoying jokes with the audience at other characters' expense, and delivers the bleakest of Chekhov's prose in a robotic, alienated semi-singsong. In the early going, he represents experience to Monica West's Anna's innocence. During the seduction before her affair with Dmitry, West enacts the confused fear of a young provincial matron by hiding nothing--she is wide-eyed, trembling, absolutely and openly horrified by Dmitri's advances. West plays the part broadly at first, wildly emotional and even intentionally annoying. By the time life has knocked Anna around, West transforms herself into a cooler, visibly older lover whose devotion comes spiked with knowing looks at the man who has saved and destroyed her life.

Pelinski does an intemperate amount of banging around the stage as the play rides its hot rails of wild mood swings. Joining him are two henchmen--Trey Burvant and Robert Olinger--costumed in old-fashioned swimsuits and charged with serving as Dmitry's surrealist sidekicks and tormenters. Burvant and Olinger act with unhinged vigor, booming up and down the aisles, throwing themselves off the back of the stage, and employing slapstick moves that see Pelinski doused, summarily pummeled, or himself dispensing punishment.

This production uses contradictions and counterpoints for fuel--grand insights are flattened, pain is teased out of the absurd, and narrative intent is subverted at certain moments by having characters mouth lines intended for one another. West and Pelinski look at times to be hanging on for dear life, which adds a sense of breathless fun and risk to a piece with sufficient sophistication to toy with convention one moment, then wear it like a mask the next. Pelinski relishes his role, looking into the audience with a conspiratorial gleam: Can you believe I'm getting away with this?

Lady with a Lapdog is long, loud, and demanding as hell. It's also an invigorating take on the possible relationships between prose and the theater. Ginkas and his cast blow a hole in Chekhov's short story that seems unlikely to close any time soon.

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