On the totem pole of creative achievement, dramatic adaptations wouldn’t seem to fall that high. Yet the long and distinguished pedigree of literary borrowers proves that the practice is no mere refuge for second-rate imaginations. After all, the Greek tragedians found most of their tales in Homer, while Shakespeare raided classic and contemporary sources alike for memorable yarns. One need not invent a story to offer the world something new. Making, judging, and knowing—the triumvirate of poetic faculties identified by W.H. Auden—are as fully employed in the retelling of, say, the Orpheus myth as they are in the dramatization of one’s tortured childhood. Needless to say, the artistic challenges remain equally daunting, with only a fine line separating originality from travesty.
British playwright Joanna Laurens found the outline of her poetic drama The Three Birds in the 57 surviving lines of Sophocles’ lost tragedy Tereus. The tale, better known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, centers on Tereus, the Thracian ruler married to Procne, who rapes his virgin sister-in-law Philomela and cuts out her tongue to silence her. Procne, learning of her sister’s victimization through a tapestry Philomela has woven, murders her son in retaliation and serves him up as dinner to her husband. Discovering the filial nature of his repast, Tereus tries to revenge himself on the two women, but the gods intervene and transform the adults into mournful creatures of the sky: Procne into a nightingale, Philomela into a swallow, and Tereus into a hoopoe.
Laurens renovates the legend by making Tereus a more sensitive villain. In her preface to the published edition of The Three Birds, she writes, “I felt it was more interesting, dramatically, for Tereus to be in love with Philomela . . . and then to cause his rape of her to be a direct result of this love.” So much for rape as an act of unmitigated violence. (Ironically, the Sophocles includes a proto-feminist speech on the unjust plight of women, which echoes Euripides’ Medea, and thus sets him ahead of our presumptuous contemporary enlightenment.) Clearly, Laurens has tragic (as opposed to overtly political) aspirations. But unlike her Greek predecessors, she doesn’t establish an overarching thematic framework for her ambitions. Her original character touches—for example, the fractured language she devises for the almost unnaturally close-knit sisters—never amount to an encompassing vision. As a first play, the work is promising mostly in the way Laurens’s linguistic adventurousness stumbles upon a less well-trodden yet sensationally rich mythological subject.
Director Sam Gold’s production at Gale Gates’s DUMBO loft space creates a fluid theatrical world on Andrew Lieberman’s attractively spare set. Satiny pieces of white cloth (a combination of bra and bandage) are strewn across the floor, while a white net hanging from above holds the entire chorus, who one by one fall to the ground only to circumnavigate the action with strange lyric shards. Stylish as the staging undeniably is, it cannot supply a coherence that the play itself lacks.
As Tereus, Chime Day Serra exposes his character’s dissatisfied inner life—he’s an id with a self-piteous romantic grudge for not getting the sister of his wet dreams. Adrienne Campbell-Holt as Philomela and Kathryn Zamora-Benson as Procne exude youth, beauty, and vacuity in proportion to their roles. Raum-Aron makes a stabbing impression of innocence as the ill-fated son Itys. But the sorry outcome of the lovers’ triangle ultimately seems more twisted than tragic.
No modern writer is more beloved than Chekhov—a fact that has paradoxically offered him some protection from the hands of admiring adapters. Though there may be a musical version of The Cherry Orchard looming in some regional theater basement, his work hasn’t been ransacked with the frequency of, say, Zola’s or Tolstoy’s. Why mess with quiet perfection? Yet that’s exactly what the “Chekhov Now” festival, a series of nine revivals and adaptations under way at the Connelly Theatre, attempts to rectify. And there’s no reason why the good doctor should enjoy immunity from such plagiaristic shenanigans—though Nick Salamone and Maury R. McIntyre’s Moscow, a gay musical that uses The Three Sisters as a launching pad for camp corniness, doesn’t necessarily make the most convincing case.
The piece’s setup has elements of Sartre’s No Exit: Three men find themselves locked in a Moscow theater for a seeming eternity with nothing to do but drive each other crazy. Jon (Clay Storseth), a theater director who’s given up on love, has translated a copy of Chekhov’s late dramatic masterpiece, which he discovered backstage. Much of the action involves trying to convince Luke (Nic Arnzen), a bonehead Southern boy who cares only about satisfying his less sublimated urges, to take on the role of Irina. Meanwhile, virgin Matt (Alan Mingo Jr.), cast as Masha, tries to persuade Jon that he has within him not only spinstery Olga but the lovesick major Vershinin—the object of Masha’s (and, by analogy, Matt’s) affection.
Though marred by caricatured humor and klutzy lyrics, Moscow benefits from the emotional depth found in Chekhov. If we care at all about the apostolically named Jon, Matt, and Luke, it’s mainly because they begin to see themselves as inhabiting the same somber reality of the sisters. And who—male or female, gay or straight—can encounter these poignantly complex women without casting themselves headlong into their roles?