“That guy pulled a real Stanislavski!” exclaimed Frank Gifford years ago during a Monday Night Football broadcast. The reference was to Constantine Stanislavski, the Russian theater director, acting teacher and founder of the Moscow Art Theater (MAT) and a punter whose histrionics suggested a roughing the kicker penalty and an automatic first down. The official was not impressed with the punter’s acting and the play stood. That Stanislavski was referenced during a football game was quite a surprise even though he was responsible for changing the style of western acting in the 20th century through his innovative “system” or as it became known in America thanks to the efforts of members of The Group Theatre, “the Method.” He championed a new playwright whose style was understated and subtle compared to the popular melodramas, long on spectacle and plot, that were filling the great proscenium theaters of all the European capitals. The playwright was Anton Chekov and his play, “The Seagull” had been a flop when acted in the old style. The MAT was struggling to find an audience for the new style of “realism” and facing financial failure when Stanislavski chose to revive the play to perform it with a company of actors trained in the new style. The play was a hit, the theater survived and the rest is history. The MAT continues to use a stylized representation of a seagull for its logo of the company, including the logo on its act curtain, programs and all publications.
This storied play was well directed by Susan Felder at Bradley in the past month. The production was well staged and acted with quick pacing and confidence by the young ensemble. A director can only guide the cast but must have the “ponies to pull the wagon,” and Ms. Felder had four-in-hand with her leads: Katey Kraemer, Jeff Manus, Becca Laird and Cody Cornwell. All turned in convincing performances. The aesthetic of realism is to “create the illusion of reality” on the stage through language, setting and acting. Scenic designer, Mark Lohman chose to depart from the usual approach to the set by using an open cyclorama and a series of aspen trees to delineate the space and as such was reminiscent of the groundbreaking Andrei Serban production of “The Cherry Orchard” at Lincoln Center in 1977. Mr. Serban’s departure from the standard style of setting has allowed realism to continue to develop and now we think nothing of mixing realistic acting with stylized settings. There is one other footnote regarding the original MAT production in 1898. The young lead, Treplev, was played by Vsevolod Meyerhold who was a protege of Stanislavski but who eventually broke from his mentor to explore a more theatrical style of production and who was shot by Stalin’s goons in 1940 because he would not recant his aesthetics in favor of the state supported “socialist realism” favored by the Soviets. Theater has always been viewed with suspicion by authoritarian regimes. All theaters in Poland were closed in the early ’80s during the Solidarity uprising.
Cornstock produced “Bug” by Tracey Letts in March. Mr. Letts is loosely affiliated with the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago and is best known for his award winning “August Osage County” (Players, spring 2017) or as an actor in “Homeland” as the feckless CIA chief. “Bug” explores the lives of either a couple of delusional dead enders or the effects of a government thought control experiment gone terribly wrong. The audience is left to decide which is the case but with the decided memory of the “you’re not paranoid if it is true” conceit. It was thought provoking and well played by Ali Pinkerton and Jake Van Horn.
Last month I mistakenly wrote that “Star Wars” was nominated for best picture, my apologies for any confusion.