nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
October 10, 2008
Conceived by the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theater Company, Chekhov Lizardbrain offers some of the most exciting theatre I have seen since living in Russia, where I spent a precious semester at the Moscow Art Theater School. It was there that a teacher of mine said, "In order to capture the mood of Chekhov, you must treat the work as if it were music; if you listen, you will hear it." After returning to the States, I came to the conclusion that American theatre hasn't quite captured the essence of the great Russian dramatist. But after witnessing Friday's entrancing performance of Chekhov Lizardbrain, I have been proved wrong.
Chekhov Lizardbrain is loosely inspired by Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and Paul MacLean's "Triune Brain Theory," illuminated by autistic author Temple Grandin in her book, Animals in Translation. According to the theory, the human brain consists of three layers: the reptilian brain, the paleomammalian brain, and the neomammalian brain. The reptilian or "lizard brain" performs basic life support functions like sleeping, eating, and breathing; the paleomammalian brain deals with emotion; and the neomammalian brain handles reason and language. Each brain operates on its own sense of time, space, and memory. Familiarity with either Three Sisters or the theory is unnecessary to follow this play; the concept (briefly discussed in the program) merely sheds light on the undeniable complexities of the human mind.
The story revolves around Dmitri, a botanist from Portland, and his alter ego, Master of Ceremonies "Chekhov Lizardbrain," who runs a Chekhovian Vaudeville show to enact and sort the memories in Dmitri's brain. Both characters are played brilliantly by James Suggs, who switches back and forth with such rapid ease that one might wonder if Suggs himself is cuckoo. Suggs's vocal dexterity is remarkable, addressing the audience in sluggish, reptilian banter as Chekhov Lizardbrain, while frantically stuttering as the socially inept Dmitri.
On a visit to his hometown in Oswego, New York, Dmitri has a run-in with Pyotr, Nikolai, and Sascha, three brothers from his childhood who have recently lost their mother. Dmitri decides to purchase their home, but before arrangements are made, he is met with rebuttal from the youngest brother, Sascha, who is tormented by the thought of losing the house and closing a lid on his memories. Mind you, this is hardly an accurate synopsis for a nonlinear, abstract play such as this, but the breadth of this piece has nothing to do with its plot and everything to do with its presentation and the overall feeling the actors evoke within us.
Performers and co-creators Dito van Reigersberg (Nikolai), Geoff Sobelle (Sascha), and Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel (Pyotr) jump in and out of Dmitri's brain (literally) with such beautifully constructed movement it's no wonder that two of them trained at the world-renowned Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Dressed in white long undergarments, top hats, and strap on moustaches (wonderfully assembled by costumer Olivera Gajic), they ping-pong Robert Quillen Camp's text off each other with a sharpness and grace akin to the Marx Brothers. The cleverly designed set (James Clotfelter) is a stage enclosed with velvet roping, with a backdrop of red curtains that open and close to reveal what looks like the inside of a brain. The arrangement of hanging light bulbs (designed by Anna Kiraly) flicker above like neurotransmitters. Director Dan Rothenberg's use of the stage as a depository for his actors, thrown in and out of the curtains, which have a life of their own, is fantastical.
We see the same events played multiple times, as though they are happening in real time and then dramatized by Chekhov Lizardbrain, who presents the same events, as Anton Chekhov would have, on the stage. While the events are the same, the latter's presentation illuminates the characters as though they are dancing life before our very eyes. As these characters go on talking, we see that life does in fact happen between the lines. The language is merely a functional veil with which the three brothers operate; they don't really listen to one another, and each seems to be a prisoner of his own mind. While Dmitri and the brothers engage in conversation with each other, there is an obvious disconnect, and it's almost as though they keep moving and talking to survive.
It's revealed to us that the events which have been played out are mere memories that have been taunting Dmitri's mind. He is left alone on stage with nothing but the recitation of his words, silently vanishing into the empty air, from which point the music that I had been longing to hear makes its final decrescendo before reaching a complete stop.