Castorf Does Chekhov

The German director brought Nach Moskau to the stage during Wiener Festwochen: some chortled, some made for the exits

Chekhov’s Three Sisters and The Peasants are intertwined by Frank Castorf | Photo: Thomas Aurin

Will Frank Castorf  lie down with Chekhov before you lie down with Frank Castorf? The Berliner Volksbühne’s star director dropped by Festwochenville Jun. 11-13 with his Nach Moskau, Nach Moskau, a four-hour Russian-commissioned paroxysm cut wildly against the usual Chekhovian grain, where the Three Sisters is fitfully interspersed with Chekhov’s peasant story “Muzhiki.” Some chortled; some strolled resolutely for the exits.

Like Proust, Schnitzler, Gyula Krudy, Chekhov enables us to conflate his characters’ nostalgia (“What a beautiful life allured me then! Where is it now?”) with our own crypto-nostalgia for those very characters and their vanished milieu. Unfortunately, front-row theatrical nostalgia might be just our first step on the way to total immersion in cravenly vicarious audiencehood.  Hard-core Chekhov fans are easily enthralled by a sentimental realism where the characters’ bittersweet “reality” is revealed to us as a supreme prize: always spectators, never participants, we happily pay the admission price instead of paying the consequences of that reality.

But Castorf has always been bent on disabusing us of the vicarious.  Listening at the keyholes of these sisters’ drawing room might deafen you: the actors are so goddamn loud. Olga (Silvia Rieger) thunders; Masha (Jeanette Spassova) shouts; Irina (Maria Kwiatkowsky) belts; Andrei (Trystan Pütter) yelps — and, except for occasional outings in Russian and French, it’s all in relentless, steamrolling Bundesdeutsch (most amusingly when they discuss sister-in-law Natasha’s mysterious offstage swain, whose name is “Pro-to-po-pov”).  A few nifty German compound words best describe their anti-nuances—“überzeichnet” (overdrawn?), “grobschlächtig” (crudeslaughterish?), “ungut” (ungood!). An outsider might call the women jerks and the men fools on Castorf’s stage, but they’re all perfectly good sports, and for once this family’s power struggles are out in the open.

In fact, his country gentry comes off more rude and more radicalized than the lower-depths of the Lumpenproletariat  in the parallel story, where unlike those idle sisters, a village maid actually makes it to Moscow, promptly drifting into prostitution. Margarita Breitkreiz’s hindsight paean to village life, delivered in a hysterical slew of exalted, mournful Russian, is a far more refined missive than Natasha’s blasé “Please take your hand off my veranda, Olga.”

Chekhov is on record as finding the first production of  The Seagull not funny enough. Here, the audience laughs when a landlord tugs the samovar out of an old lady’s grasp (it later gets smartly kicked off his porch) or when Andrei pushes a baby carriage bumpety-bump towards us down a full flight of stairs, then heaves it back up and down, up and down. (Bert Neumann’s stage picture, an expressively spare hut and high porch, could be called an apotheosis of the two-by-four.) The actors’ faces and frames are just bizarre enough to be comic: excessive ranting seems to have crossed their eyes, chipped their teeth, attenuated their spines to the breaking point.

Still, this Hochdeutsch bunch doesn’t seem truly lumpy, and self-irony is a light bulb that they’ve long forgotten to replace. Perhaps more laughable than funny, they could be mistaken for skilled actors obediently indulging in modern German Schreitheater. Forced to temporarily desist from gambling, Andrei bobs up and down in a minute-long temper tantrum that ends as abruptly as it starts. Castorf’s style is radical qua radical, that is to say, mechanical—as if you turned up the hi-fi dial on a Morton Feldman piece until everything became fortissimo.

Yet that may be his most consequent virtue. As often when a director pressure-cooks his show into high stylization, the actors are here freed of self-consciousness by limiting their “expressive range.” Over the four-hour haul, this freedom inevitably gave their performances depth, and the evening soared. In the performance I saw, Kathrin Angerer (Natasha) was announced by Castorf as suffering from an ailment of the vocal cords, forthwith putting her in his ideal class. Her voice sundered in two, a dead pan of stained steel, she cooed and spat into her body mike with smooth confidence.

“Sir Henry,” an onstage pianist who also played Masha’s husband–the proverbial horse’s ass– hunched forward in a jazzy cramp as if he were his own bookend, talking in radio-announcer American about the fine weather.  But his imaginary quote marks weren’t bratty; neither he nor we needed a mirror. The most intimate acting came when the drawing room was scrapped and actors mused directly to us instead of to their stage confidants, possibly napping in the wings.

Pace some Chekov diehards, real theater isn’t evocation, it’s comparison.  You could have winced with one eye and winked with the other while this Olga barked out Chekhov’s marvellous closing speech: “The music plays on so cheerfully, as if some small thing would tell us why we live, why we suffer…” Usually it’s a coup of rarefied melancholy for the actress playing Olga. But sure enough—with Rieger, the humor Chekhov missed in The Seagull was suddenly there, because you could compare her grobschlächtig thespian style with the poetaster sentiments of her character.

More to the point, try comparing: 1) your own snickering irritation during the first 3 ½ hours of this Chekhov compendium (this time you couldn’t fall in love with any of his characters!) with: 2) your glad capitulation to its strident energy—in your face, not over your head—in the last half-hour. If anything, you might come away disappointed that the actors´ brash delivery wasn’t more threatening; post-1945 German screams may be too clean.

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