It’s in the air, it’s everywhere, it conquers all – it's love. Whatever that is.
Based on two stories by the Russian masters Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, the two plays joined under this generic title have basically no intrinsic thematic relationship, except that they both take love as their subject – and they were both adapted by the same man. The Mint Theater, under the direction of Jonathan Bank, has already revived two of the plays of the early 20th-century actor, playwright, director and advocate of open marriage Miles Malleson (Unfaithfully Yours, Conflict). Now the company is pairing two of his adaptations of famous short stories: Anton Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story” and Leo Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By. But is the duo mismatched – or simply offering a multifaceted view of that multi-splendored thing?
In the evening’s first one-act, The Artist, the eponymous middle-aged artist Nikov (a capable Alexander Sokovikov) has, after weeks of mopey inertia, finally started on a painting of the estate’s lush garden in which the play is set. This move delights the estate owner’s younger daughter, Genya (Anna Lentz), who’s half the artist’s age, given to fanciful dressing, and apparently bored to tears by life in the provinces. She loves and admires her sister Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu), who’s constantly busy running a school and dispensary for the locals, but spends her own time apparently making floral wreaths for her hair and sitting with her books, gazing into space. Galvanized by this pretty, under-occupied presence on his perimeter, the artist not only springs into painting action, but is moved to start declaiming about creating art. His efforts make an impact on Genya, with not-so-surprising consequences for them both.
After a brief intermission, the evening’s second half starts, with the Tolstoy adaptation, Michael, a mystical exploration of agape rather than eros. Against a folklorically stylized set, a cobbler’s wife (Katie Firth) and aged, addled servant (Vinie Burrows, who’s so compelling you expect more for her character than she’s given) wait for the man of the house (J. Paul Nicholas) to return with the warm sheepskin he was sent to purchase. Instead, he comes back with a hungry, mute stranger (an eerily effective Malik Reed), whom they finally decide to take in, despite their poverty. Michael, as they call him, turns out to have a gift for shoemaking and some disturbing otherworldly traits. The love he ends up sharing, when at last he breaks silence, is the love of one’s fellow man, which he advocates as the guiding force that keeps humanity alive – a far cry from the lackadaisical May-December romance of the first play.
The two plays feel like they’re from different worlds. Under the direction of Bank, the first has all the familiar bittersweet world-weariness of one of Chekhov’s full-length classics, while the second, directed by Jane Shaw, gleams with an evocatively fairy-tale quality that suits the parable. Though neither play is what you’d call a romcom (and thank goodness for that), there’s little other connection between them – other than they’re connected, too, by the loving care with which they’re enacted. Each is a distinct tribute to its original author – even though those two worldviews seem to have virtually nothing in common. But what illuminates them both is the sense of yearning that each expresses – for each, in its own unique way, love is indeed the answer.
For a third Russian play about love, it’s well worth heading downtown to the Sheen Center to see About Love, a charming play by Bay Street Theatre Associate Artistic Director Will Pomerantz inspired by Ivan Turgenev’s short story, “First Love.” Enhanced with music and songs by jazz artist Nancy Harrow (played by a live ensemble), the play tells the story of Peter (Jeffrey Kringer), a young man summering in the country with his family. He’s supposed to be studying, but becomes enamored of a charismatic but problematic woman five years his senior, Zina (Silvia Daly Bond), who’s already being pursued by a quartet of older men. As he’s drawn into her orbit, the two simultaneously experience the life-changing pull of first love – but not exactly for one another. In this ingenious staging, the talented actors shift roles, emphasizing the universality of the experience without losing the very particular parameters of this story. A thoughtful and thought-provoking production, this tour de force seems, indeed, to be a labor of love.