By Bob Shuman
In a week where Robert De Niro’s curse out of Donald Trump received a standing ovation at the 2018 Tony Awards, Russian actor Evgeny Mironov, who immerses himself in the title character of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov—at New York City Center from June 14-17–notes, in a Playbill interview with Katie Labovitz, that “Art is above politics.” The two actors, who were not reacting to one other’s comments, emphasize a cultural distinction between the aesthetics of the two countries and raise a tortuous, ugly subject for both—the degree to and ways in which censorship is employed. American theatre, where politics is a marketing hook (Trump as Julius Caesar at the Delacorte last summer, for example) does silence through marginalizing and ignoring even important work and artists, admonishing or condemning them for mistakes in liberal thinking—recall the careless lack of perspective in the title for The New York Times review of the Pearl’s 2016 A Taste of Honey; “She’s Having the Baby. How Quaint.” Or consider the roughly half of American voters who would not concur with Mr. De Niro or even want their children to have to listen to him on such a subject on a night which largely celebrates musicals. Maybe Russians are more accustomed to abrupt changes in the political climate than those in the West, which may help explain why De Niro has had trouble accepting a free election that happened over a year and a half ago. Or is he just emissary of the unofficial censorship from the left? Here’s a simple observation: Why do reviews of plays, books, art, concentrate so heavily on divining an author’s politics, real or imagined—and passing judgment on them, instead of discussing the work itself? Have we become a nation not of art aficionados, but of inspectors patrolling the slippery slope of political correctness? Within the last year the BAM production of the Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s conflicted dramatic interpretation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he shamefully admires—but without him, without his standing in the artistic community, without his being native to another country, where would Objectivism, akin to Conservatism, have a chance to be contemplated on stage in this country? Chekhov, of course, talks about the need to shift cultural perspectives through his character Konstantin, in The Seagull. Perhaps, he is right to impute that a cultural collision is necessary to shake up prevailing artistic norms.
Ivanov (Mironov), the title character in the new Theatre of Nations production, brought to the U.S. as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival, would never be deemed politically correct, much less producible, if written by an American playwright, although the current settings and costumes are contemporary. This may upset the paradigm of understanding the playwright’s work in terms of needing to see him as part of Old Russia: fading, if grandiose; but Ivanov himself, plagued by financial crises and alcohol abuse, a dying wife he doesn’t love (Chulpan Khamatova), and a young woman he is attracted to (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) would also not win him much sympathy with the #MeToo Movement or raise much interest in the shrinking men’s market (a work with similar themes by Derek Ahonen of the Amoralists, The Qualification of Douglas Evans, did not make much impact in 2014). Such a character is not unknown in the American vernacular, however; he’s just more akin to others who have had their day, like those in the writings of John Updike and John Cheever. All of the actors—part of Ivanov’s family and social circle–need mention, though, because of their stamina throughout the evening (three hours and ten minutes, performed in Russian with English surtitles) and the complexity of their performances: Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Igor Gordin, Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitry Serdyuk, Alexander Novin, Marianna Shults, Olga Lapshina, Aleksey Kalinin, Ilya Orshanskiy, Irina Gordina, and Andrey Andreev.
Oleg Golovko’s settings for the play also inadvertently recall the American 1970’s—his decor is at first heavy, unmatched patterns and drywall, perhaps brutalist, reminiscent of paneling and prefab, pre-Martha Stewart. Elsewhere he recreates a dacha lit by candlelight (and sparklers), a utilitarian doctor’s office devoid of personality, except overseen by a large kitschy painting of a German Shepherd, and the back room of a wedding hall—the amplified lighting, using fluorescents, is by Denis Solntsev. Chekhov shows that Ivanov is despondent (“When I’m depressed, I fall out of love with you”), but that seems like a bad excuse for his transgressions. Audiences are not asked to ascertain a minimal production, though; a current, cost-effective mode. The cast has also apparently been given time to move beyond telegraphing and shortcuts, to think past the next line or plot point. They work naturalistically to achieve independent characters, arriving at fullness: the condition of entropy just before chaos. Whether the credit should be given to the actors or to the director, Timofey Kulyabin, or all, the emphasis rests on accumulations of behaviors, quite detailed. Examples include the twirling of a plate on a tabletop or clapping the hands of a partner in a birthday dance, or doing chin-ups, or kissing hands—the depth of specific touches may be missed by the audience and some might never be known. Whether they have been improvised or consciously blocked, Stanislavski is noting them.
Evgeny Mironov’s appraisal of art as above politics registers with a purity to American ears who have come to believe that art is only politics. Internationally, there is much to be learned regarding fine art from other cultures, beyond the American status quo. Domestically, though, art is not politically balanced and has been appropriated propagandistically. There is work to see, but the American theatremaker has largely been abandoned by the right—to the point where his or her art can be demonized, if it can even be visualized at all. During the time of year where lists are compiled about winning dramatic works, accolades are one-sided and incomplete. Theatre does not have a Regnery, the publisher of Conservative books, to provide any kind of balance. To a liberal, that may come as a relief on different levels, but it does not show the world the true range of possibilities for finding our own Chekhov, no matter his or her political affiliation. One way Americans can start to confront this matter, as the #MeToo Movement raises its voice, is to allow someone, like Jon Voight, who, incidentally, played Trigorin in The Seagull on Broadway, to be part of the Tony ceremonies next year. Part of becoming nonpartisan regarding the arts–and coming to a reckoning with the past–is to acknowledge how partisan they actually are.
Update, 6/18: In an apparent answer to Robert De Niro’s Tony performance, Chris Perez, in The New York Post reported, on June 18, that a Trump supporter tried to disrupt the curtain call of the musical Bronx Tale, directed by Mr. De Niro, on June 16, by standing to display a Trump 2020 campaign flag.
© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
(Photos by Sergei Petrov–from top: Ensemble; l. to r. Chulpan Khamatova and Dmitry Serdyuk; Elizaveta Boyarskaya and Evgeny Mironov; Ivanov Evgeny Mironov at table.)