The Seagull on 16th Street
Through July 19, 2009
By Anton Chekhov, translator: Carol Rocamora
adapted by Ari Roth, director: John Vreeke
Theater J at the Washington DC JCC
1529 16th Street NW, Washington
The Theater J production takes a lot of risks. That statement is worth repeating. Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director, has essentially taken a play by a non-Jew, Chekhov, which had no Jewish content whatsoever (the closest things to religion are references to “sacred art,” “high-priests of art,” and battles with Satan, according to the translation I found on Project Gutenberg) and infused it with Jewish content, themes, and songs from the American rock band R.E.M. Where Chekhov refers to “antediluvians,” Theater J amends, “people from before Noah’s ark,” and Chekhov’s stagehand Jacob becomes Yakov in Roth’s script. When Treplev’s mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina (Naomi Jacobson), denounces his art as “decadent rubbish,” Theater J renders it “Hebraic tripe,” and later when Chekhov has Treplev call his mother a “Miser!” to which she retaliates with “Rag-bag!” Theater J offers the following exchange:
ARKADINA: Beggar! Jew! Nonentity!
I respectfully disagree. I think Chekhov reads quite well with Treplev announcing the play with a shofar, adding, “We’re beginning the way our ancient forefathers called their flock into battle. With our very own Call to Art! And Worship! To Introspection!” This is just the sort of thing one would expect of the young, tortured artist, who delights in translating the ritual for the benefit of those “who need their Hebrew rituals Anglicized:” “The Great Union/Division
In the end, though, the play perhaps has more to say to modern-day critics who reject the prospect of a Jewish theater than it does to an adaptation of Arkadina. Theater J, whatever one thinks of its current production, is the realization of Treplev’s dream, and one of his rants about his mother (who mistakes Hebrew for Hindu, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu, and “gibberish”) might be worth the most important element of the play to hold on to: “A psychological wonder; that’s my mother But just try mentioning the Yiddish Theatre of Warsaw in her presence, or the Great Sarah Bernhardt! ‘You call that acting? That yenta?!’ No, we must praise ‘Her,’ and her tradition alone, which is really no tradition, just a bad translation of European hauteur, which is to say anti-Semitism cloaked in costume – which it generally is, by the way, be it the Cossacks, Crusaders, or the Grand Inquisitioners.”
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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