Playwright: Anton Chekhov, adapted by Geoff Button. At: The Hypocrites at the Den Mainstage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-525-5991; www.the-hypocrites.com; $28. Runs through: June 6
The biggest obstacle to modern audience comprehension of Chekhov's pre-revolutionary Russian society is not the frequently over-academic translations of his texts, nor the nostalgic distractions of samovars and bell-skirted gowns, but our unfamiliarity with the infrastructure of its dramatic universe. Substituting "Hollywood" for "Moscow," or an overseas U.S. military base for a remote small-town army garrisonas a few theater companies havegoes only so far in closing the cultural gap to the extent necessary to promote identification with its inhabitants.
Director Geoff Button takes two bold steps toward rectifying this problem in his production for The Hypocrites. The first is his employment of an idiom only minimally adhering to the original script, being instead a paraphrase-based interpretation departing from 19th-century modes of discourse to apprise us instantly of the dynamic in progress when, say, the Prozorov sisters bully their little brother and snoot his "townie" fiancée ( raising the question of whether the latter's subsequent abuse of her in-laws is motivated, not by spite, but mere emulation of the conduct she has observed ). We also grasp immediately Olga's resignation at becoming caretaker to the family's elderly mother-surrogate, Irina's decision to "settle" for a marriage of convenience and Masha's disappointment at having wed her adolescent crush, only see him turn into a stuffy bureaucrat, driving her into the arms of a lonely officer trapped in a likewise troubled wedlock. Oh, and don't forget Solyony, the misanthropic G.I. whom we now recognize as a PTSD mall-shooter in the making.
Button doesn't stop at altering our central verbal metaphor, but adopts an expressionistic visual approach to his period setting as well. In an early scene, Olga chides Natasha for the sartorial crime of matching a lime-hued belt with a pink blouse. This introduces into the scenic and wardrobe design a palette wherein the acid-greens and olives we associate with the future mistress of the household gradually come to dominate the mauves and maroons of her husband's siblings as, one by one, they are forced to surrender to a usurper's garish tastes in decor.
The concept of mobilitygeographical, economical, occupationalis a cornerstone of our national character, subconsciously reminding us of opportunities for reinvention despite our efforts to sympathize with those of more limited options. The words uttered by an agile ensemble deftly navigating multiple levels of consciousness may reduce the distance between Chekhov's world and ours, but it also suggests that the blame for his characters' unhappiness might lie in themselves, not in their stars.