Chekhov never wrote a play called Platonov. The work that usually bears the name, written when Chekhov was 18 years old, didn’t receive a title, and is often viewed as a draft for the playwright’s later masterpieces like Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Translator Laurence Senelick calls the play an “early experiment” in his collection of Chekhov’s work, yet all the familiar tropes are there: the country estate, the fading aristocracy, the dreams of Moscow, the tragicomic tone.
It’s a sprawling piece with several characters and dozens of scenes; The Present, Sydney Theatre Company’s Cate Blanchett-starring adaptation on Broadway last season, lasted three hours even with cuts. Blessed Unrest’s Platonov at the New Ohio Theatre runs a good-for-the-glutes 90 minutes and has excised a majority of the dramatis personae, resulting in an evening that curbs the play’s youthful profligacy but also neuters its passions.
The play is named for Platonov (Darrell Stokes), “an unsatisfied schoolmaster,” but in true Chekhovian fashion, it takes a village to raise a crisis. There’s Sasha (Ashley N. Hildreth), wife of Platonov and sister to Nikolai (Taylor Valentine), “a sick doctor,” who flirts with recently widowed landowner Anna (Irina Abraham). Anna’s stepson Sergei (Hildreth again) wants to sell the estate. He is married to Sofya (Becca Schneider), who knows Platonov from university days and is in love with him, as are most of the women in the play.
Role doubling by most of the ensemble adds a further layer of complexity to the comic roundelay, impelling the audience to lean in; no relaxed viewing here. Sergei calls for Sasha (both played by Hildreth), and later Nikolai shouts for Kopecka (both played by Valentine), but neither receives a response because they are, in essence, talking to themselves. These moments are not only the funniest in Laura Wickens’ static translation, but also the production’s canniest embodiment of Chekhov’s concern with the ways understanding can fail in the chasms between well-meaning humans.
Blessed Unrest promises “to create an environment where dangerous things can happen,” but Platonov is listless and, outside of keeping the names and relationships straight, fairly unchallenging; your beliefs leave the theatre in much the same shape they entered it. Yet the play comes to life in the interludes between scenes. Blessed Unrest is strongest as a physical theatre company, and the wordless, choreographed interludes fizz with the focused intensity and narrative clarity missing from the rest of the play. The action careens around the audience through the entire playing space, which feels right for Chekhov’s sprawl, but the dialogue scenes are staged with an enervating randomness.
The whole evening, in fact, is eclectic but shapeless. The pre-show music, from Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” to the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” and Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On,” would all seem to place the show vaguely in the early-2000s, but there’s no follow-through on this intriguing positioning from the play itself. The character of Platonov is a walking case study in lost idealism, and one can almost imagine this production of his play trying to connect the dots between a recently post-9/11 America and our modern malaise, but there truly is no there, there. The play doesn’t have a name, but it doesn’t have much of a point, either.