by Gail M. Burns, August 2005.

The Nina Variations raises a very important question. Is it fair to expect or require an audience to have to have a certain body of knowledge, or to make an effort to acquire it, before they can enjoy a play? If you are not quite intimately acquainted with The Seagull (1896) by Anton Chekhov, you will neither understand nor enjoy The Nina Variations by Steven Dietz, currently on the boards at the Miniature Theatre of Chester.

In his brief 1996 play Dietz imagines 42 different scenarios between Chekhov’s Nina Mihailovna Zaryechnaia (Rebecca Brooksher) and Konstantin “Kostia” Gavrilovich Treplev (Nick Newell), the young actress and playwright from The Seagull. Some of their encounters are very brief indeed and the numbered scenes are announced by the ringing of a bell and the projection of the new scene number on a screen above the stage.

Dietz was inspired to write this piece after being commissioned to write a new adaptation of The Seagull. “I could not focus on the rest of the play at all. I was mesmerized by the magnitude of this single fateful encounter,” he wrote, referring to the encounter between Nina and Treplev in Act IV. He never wrote the adaptation.

So The Nina Variations was born of a very close examination of The Seagull and of the relationship between these two characters.

While I am not a Chekhov expert by any means as random audience members go I am better off than most. I am a big fan of Chekhov. While many people complain that nothing ever happens in a Chekhov play, I am fascinated and delighted by his recreation of the minutia and frustrations of ordinary people in their day to day lives. I have seen and read all of his plays at least once in my life. The last time I saw The Seagull was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1994 with Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow as Mme. Arkadina and Nina.

Normally, I do research before seeing a show that I am reviewing, but in the course of a very busy week got only as far as tossing The Seagull on to the back seat of my car before I drove to Chester. I figured that Dietz would provide at some point in his play sufficient information to assist the unwashed masses in understanding and enjoying both his work and Chekhov’s. I was wrong. I don’t even think that a quick read through of The Seagull ahead of time would have enabled me to enjoy The Nina Variations. You really do have to get deeply and intimately involved with “The Seagull” and these two characters, as Dietz did, to understand and enjoy what is happening on stage. The people who will just love The Nina Variations will be actors and directors who have recently participated in a production of The Seagull and academics who have studied and written extensively on the play. If you fall into one of those categories, book tickets right away.

I googled a few other reviews of different productions of The Nina Variations and found that they mostly parroted the press releases, assuring potential theatergoers that the play was brilliant and witty. I have no doubt that it is both, but only to insiders or to people willing to make the effort to attain that status before seeing the play. Would I invest hours of reading and research in order to understand 85 minutes of theatre? Even for a theatre nut like me I think the answer would be no.

Nothing actually happens in The Nina Variations. I mentioned earlier that people have that reaction to Chekhov, but this is not Chekhov, it is Dietz. Chekhov’s plays are linear and set in real time, The Nina Variations is not. I find it impossible to believe that Dietz could be of the belief that nothing happens in a Chekhov play and therefore would have written a play in which nothing happens as an homage.

Rebecca Brooksher as Nina and Nick Newell as Treplev in Steven Dietz's The Nina Variations. (Photo Rick Teller)

As always, the Miniature Theatre of Chester has cast two talented and attractive actors. They and director Byam Stevens have had ample warning and been paid to get themselves up to speed on both The Seagull and The Nina Variations and I have no doubt that they understand exactly what they are doing and are doing it well. Certainly the entertainment that is to be had here is in watching the very appealing Brooksher morph her expressive face into a variety of moods. Newell is good and good looking, but gets less to do.

Steven Mitchell has designed a puzzling set. Thanks to Lara Dubin’s seamless lighting design it is sometimes an interior and sometimes an exterior and sometimes both at once. The exterior depicts the shoreline and the lake at which The Seagull takes place. The interior represents a room, sort of. The room has a tall, narrow, arched doorway, the shape of which is echoed, sometimes faintly and sometimes more strongly, in white paint elsewhere on the walls, which then become transparent when the exterior is indicated. The exterior is very pretty and the interior is quite ugly. The desk at which Treplev writes is very modern and is equipped with an electric light and electric pencil sharpener. Branimira Ivanova (there’s a Chekhovian name for you) has designed costumes that are modern and attractive, but equally puzzling. What era are we in?

Basically, trying to understand and write about this play made my head hurt. Are we supposed to view these people as Nina and Treplev or as the actors who play them? What play is Treplev writing? The Seagull? The Nina Variations? Or something completely different? If he is writing Nina, why can’t he control her? If she is writing him, why isn’t she in control? If Chekhov or Deitz is writing them both, why do either of them have any freewill at all?

In several scenes Dietz takes sharp jabs at critics who write about work they don’t understand or haven’t read. Sure, I could run out and buy a copy of Dietz’s play and sit down with it and The Seagull and write a detailed critique and analysis of how Dietz uses his source material and whether or not I agree with his take on the characters and situations. Perhaps as a critic that is what I should have done.

But that brings us back to the question of how much work should a playwright expect his/her audience to do? Buying a ticket to the theatre is a voluntary activity. Most people go to the theatre to be entertained – for some that means being allowed to relax and for others that means being challenged to think. While it is a critic’s job to be more educated and informed than the average theatergoer, it is also our job to try to assess each production as it will be perceived and enjoyed by the person on the street. After all, we are helping you decide how to spend your entertainment dollars.

As I am writing this, I am also working on my review of King John at Shakespeare & Company. That is an obscure play of the Bard’s, seldom performed or taught. If you had asked me a few days ago which play I thought I knew better King John or The Seagull I would have told you the latter. I would have been wrong. As I conducted my research into “King John” I discovered I knew quite a bit about that monarch and his family, and it proved easy to learn some additional facts that made the play more enjoyable to me. Also, Shakespeare & Company provides a detailed plot synopsis in their season booklet and director Tina Packer has written some illuminating director’s notes for the playbill. Shakespeare himself, writing about a time as distant from his day as he is from ours, built explanatory dialogue into the play. As the press I received some additional materials, which is lovely, but everything listed above is made available to the general public to enhance their enjoyment of the performance. Neither the director, the playwright, nor the management of the Miniature Theatre of Chester provides any additional information to assist the audience in attaining a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of The Nina Variations.

As a result of what I’ve learned about King John I am inspired to add some good historical biographies to my winter reading list. Seeing the play made me want to learn more. After seeing The Nina Variations I put my Chekhov back on the shelf.

While this is a pleasant production, in the end I have to conclude that The Nina Variations is not good theatre because it neither entertained nor challenged me. It merely made me feel like an inadequate outsider.

The Nina Variations runs through August 14 at the Miniature Theatre of Chester. The show runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. There is nothing untoward that would prevent you from bringing children, but they will undoubtedly be bored. There is one loud off-stage gunshot. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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