Theater archives

Pig Iron Transforms the Great Russian in Chekhov Lizardbrain, the Roundabout Undoes Bolt, and 13 Breaks Out in Teen Clichés


In our crazy world, the reasonable, in art, often makes far less sense than the outré. No surprise, then, that Pig Iron Theatre’s Chekhov Lizardbrain seems both more coherent and more genuinely Chekhovian than the tinny dismemberment of The Seagull currently on Broadway. As its title suggests, Pig Iron’s 80-minute, four-actor creation doesn’t pretend to be a Chekhov play. Instead, the company’s invented a post-Chekhov American drama (text by Robert Quillen Camp), which it then proceeds to take apart, scrutinize, and re-Chekhovize.

In lieu of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, one of the show’s nominal sources, we get three brothers in Oswego, New York, whose mother has recently died. The “lizardbrain” half of the title comes from Pig Iron’s other source, the part-autistic animal scientist Temple Grandin: A quote from her in the program explains that the human brain’s lowest section—the medulla oblongata, which controls basic physical processes and instinctive reactions—corresponds to the “reptilian” brain found in lizards.

“Chekhov Lizardbrain,” cerebral notator of visceral reactions, is the piece’s guiding spirit, alter ego of the three brothers’ childhood friend, an alienated fellow named Dmitri (James Sugg), who’s gone to Seattle to study botany, had an unexplained breakdown, and returned to Oswego in time to be a potential buyer for the parental home that the siblings are about to put on the market. Conflict arises over the sale when Sascha (Geoff Sobelle), who nursed their mother through her last illness, objects. (Oswego notwithstanding, all four men sport Russian names.) The brothers’ kinship turns acrimonious, making their encounters with Dmitri awkward. The final transfer of ownership, updating Chekhov’s revisionist versions of 19th-century inheritance melodrama, becomes a prolonged agony.

Between these scenes, played in a colloquial tone and in street clothes, come other bits of the story, written in stilted translationese and played in an arch parody of period style, with the actors clad in white long johns, frock coats, handlebar mustaches, and top hats. Both sets of scenes mingle with fevered discussions between “Chekhov Lizardbrain” and Dmitri, with Sugg taking both parts.

This barely begins to convey what occurs in Chekhov Lizardbrain. The short, quirky event paradoxically seems both translucent and opaque, thread-thin yet dense with substance. The performance juggles ideas about Chekhov, about playmaking, about what the theater’s for, mixing them with bigger matters: love, honesty, friendship, and justice; our relation to nature, to each other, ultimately to ourselves. Nothing’s insisted on and little is stated overtly; the show’s almost aggressively undidactic. As with Chekhov, the things we understand from it hang in the atmosphere, articulated but unspoken, engulfing the characters. The result is a kind of exhilarating despair: Everything in life is hopelessly weird, including the act of building a theater piece; we build on our awareness of that.

With a company working collectively like this, it’s easier to list credentials than to single out individuals for praise: Dan Rothenberg directed Chekhov Lizardbrain; the actors I haven’t mentioned yet are Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel and Dito van Reigersberg; the intriguingly preposterous costumes are by Olivera Gajic. The one guaranteed compliment goes to Sugg, who handles his duologue solos with pinpoint precision and invests Dmitri’s downbeat monotone with magically nuanced variety.

The Roundabout apparently found Robert Bolt’s 1961 A Man for All Seasons, in its original form, way too cynically downbeat. Doug Hughes’s heavy-handed production seems determined to enshrine its title character, Sir Thomas More (Frank Langella), as a Romantic-era hero-martyr, Sydney Carton in a Tudor doublet. The historical More, an extreme Catholic reactionary, could be bawdy or blunt as well as philosophically witty. Downplaying both extremism and coarseness, Bolt’s script emphasizes More’s reflective wit: He’ll die for his principles, but he’ll zing a lot of ironic jokes at you on his way to death. Craftily, Bolt’s original counterbalances More’s gleeful martyrdom with a low-comic commentator called The Common Man, who introduces the scenes, plays a string of subordinate roles, and supplies us with a running awareness of how ordinary folk who can’t afford principles save their necks in troubled times.

Hughes omits this character, which is roughly like doing Threepenny Opera without the songs. The Common Man was one of the play’s structural elements. Lacking him, it feels shabby, pompous, and monochrome—especially because Hughes and Langella have invented a bullyingly self-righteous More who ends every scene with a hoarse rant, ignoring the witticisms or whacking them at you with a sledgehammer, echoed by the pounding drums and crashing chords of David Van Tieghem’s score. Some excellent actors are trapped in this noise-box, but Hughes has confined most of them to one note each. Only a few—Michel Gill’s troubled Duke of Norfolk, Maryann Plunkett’s dowdy, forceful Alice More—escape his Procrustean approach.

I made a stupid but prophetic mistake in my pre-season piece (Voice, September 3) by assuming that the musical 13 was based on some recent movie. 13, it turns out, is an original work that’s been carefully crafted to resemble countless other works in its raunchy but moralizing teen genre, from the ancient Footloose through last year’s Saved. Hip Manhattan kid gets plunked down in Midwestern Nowheresville, gets snubbed by the in crowd, finds true friendship among the local outcasts instead. These full-evening onstage after-school specials, so tidily plotted and so organized in their rowdiness, lack the two things musical theater thrives on: surprise and fun. Jason Robert Brown’s well-wrought songs achieve both occasionally by reaching back to old show-tune styles; Christopher Gattelli’s choreography periodically loosens up Jeremy Sams’s stiffly efficient direction.

And though not given much to work with, the 13 13-year-olds who comprise the show’s entire cast have presence and energy to burn. Graham Phillips’s shy geniality, Elizabeth Egan Gillies’s wide-eyed sweetness, and Eric M. Nelsen’s lightning-swift physicality do more for 13 than it does for them.