"I take your hand in mine..." by Carol Rocamora. Directed by Benedicta Bertau.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...stumbling over the threshold."
Russian actress Olga Knipper lived into her nineties. Her husband, the playwright Anton Chekhov, died young - he was only forty-four. She was the finest interpreter of his leading female roles and she was, undoubtedly, his inspiration. Their relationship only lasted a scant six years from first meeting until his untimely death from complications attributable to his Tuberculosis. When he wrote the comedy "The Cherry Orchard" in his last year, she agreed to play the lead, Ranevskaya, a mature woman who is forced to sell her family property and move on. She was considered by Chekhov to be too young, but she insisted that the character was indeed young. It was a role she was still playing at age 80, in 1948, a role she had grown into with both love and insight. According to reports she still maintained a youthful energy in the difficult part.
In the new play on stage in Hudson, New York, presented by Walking the Dog Theater, the entire six year relationship is played out through the words each of these people wrote to the other in over 400 letters. The prologue tells us that the play will take us from the friendship established at the first meeting into the love and lust of exuberant lovers and finally into the strength and depth of feelings contained in their brief marriage. Oddly, from the script and playing of its text, it is clear that no friendship ever was established between these two: from the first moment it was love even if they didn’t accept it as such.
Director Benedicta Bertau has given her two actors glances, surreptitious looks and gestures that clearly indicate the instant passion felt by Chekhov and Knipper. Their words are never polite and friendly, but always insistently passionate. While such things could be played with a visual restraint, the choice in this production is to delve right into the emotional impact each felt and imparted.
The two met during a rehearsal of his play, "The Seagull" on September 9, 1898. The facts of the matter show that it was Chekhov’s younger sister, Masha, a principal care-giver who sacrificed her own great love to stay with her brother, who kept the new friendship alive. The three of them actually lived "a-trois" for months and the letters between Masha and Olga would seem to indicate that the love between the two women was passionate and caring as the love of either woman for the man in their lives. These issues are never addressed in this play. Photos of the threesome show how very similar the two women were in size, coloring and looks. Freud could do wonders, naturally, with this trio and David Mamet could portray them in as lewd and lascivious a way as possible. Playwright Rocamora leaves Masha in deep shadow in the sidelines of the relationship and gives the beauty and difficulty of the two principals instead. Clearly there is another play to be written at some time, but we must deal with the one we have.
Rocamora has deftly used the texts of Knipper’s and Chekhov’s letters to construct scenes that play out with a wonderful, if impossible, reality. There is never a sense of reading aloud, although the two actors - in full costume - do read from the printed texts quite often. Bertau has woven the reading aloud aspect of the script into fine pictures that bring out the human contact that may have been missing much of the time as the lovers, kept apart by her career and his ill-health, seem never to leave one another’s side. There is a great beauty in this imposed reality. At the end of the 86 minute play we completely understand how passion has kept two people alive and together even u nder the difficult situation of lives lived simultaneously in Yalta and Moscow.
Bethany Caputo is a beautiful, sensitive and sensual Olga Knipper. With minimal props, principally a scarf, she allows us to feel her heat and her passions. The concept of a "cold" people is thrown off the stage within minutes as she reaches out in letters and looks to the man she has been drawn to instantly. Her voice and her face are not individually entrancing, but the her use of facial changes of expression and her lilting voice in combination provide a doorway or window into the soul of the character she plays. Caputo’s Olga is remarkable: alive, real and so present that to opine that she is channeling the real Knipper seems not out of place here.
As Anton Chekhov David Anderson adds a real feather to his already well-adorned cap. He looks likes the photographs of the real Chekhov and he moves with that catlike grace that has supported his previous characters so well. This time, however, there is a difference that is utterly fascinating. In the short period of time covered by the play we actually watch his physical deterioration on stage. He adds to the already remarkable elements of his voice, personality and style a subtle, nuanced constant sense of progress and change. There are moments here, particularly as Chekhov struggles with "The Three Sisters," when it is all one can do to sit back, and resist trying to help him through his emotional barriers. In spite of its limited run, this is a role that Anderson needs to maintain in his active repertoire for it is one of the few parts he has played locally that has allowed him to grow, alter and effectively age in front of his audience. It is a perfect fit, a brilliant performance.
Katie Jean Wall has provided a charming atmosphere and equally charming costumes for her actors. Deena Pewtherer’s lighting is both practical and effective and Jonathan Talbott’s guitar music is used in just the right way to enhance the moods of the play.
Benedicta Bertau and company are offering local audiences an experience that won’t be easily forgotten, or forgiven if the emotional impact is overwhelming. The three authors: Chekhov, Knipper and Rocamora - have been well served by this company. The only thing missing is more of the same.
David Anderson as Chekhov and Bethany Caputo as Knipper; photo: Dan Region
David Anderson; photo: Dan Region
"...I take your hand in mine" plays at Space 360, located at 360 Warren Street in Hudson, New York, through November 29 (not long enough). Seating is limited so make reservations early. Ticket prices range from $15 to $25. For reservations call 518-610-0909 or go to their website at www.wtdtheatre.org.