The Nina Variations

ensemble theatre · will play for food theatre group · Ages 13+ · United States

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June 16, 2012 certified reviewer

My overall impression

I like to read Chekhov’s work as an elevated, loving satire; a pastiche culled from societal archetypes and peculiar lazzi performed by gathered folks as per propriety’s dictate. Clearly, I’m no Chekhovian scholar (and never will be, my God, there’s much wonderful junk on television), but I found it interesting that this piece more or less reflects that reading.
I mean none of this to appear pejorative. The Nina Variations casts six incredibly attractive, young people giving Los Angeles Actor interpretations of a Playwrighting 201 class project of 42 variations of the last Nina/Konstantin scene (and, at times, underlying arc) in the Seagull. The mere event of attending this piece is so layered with symbolism – intentional and unintentional – that you’re likely to feel a bit dizzy when thinking on it.
Although contrived (yet delightfully so), it was the core concept that bought my ticket for tonight, and I’m pleased to say I was left with a head swimming in the deconstructed side show I happily allowed to happen to me. At times I was entertained, yet from the beginning, I was intent on experiencing this piece as academically as my sleep-addled, midnight-weary brain could follow.
Allow me to parse my logline. First, I’m wary of Chekhov anywhere, particularly outside of the hands of trained professionals. Everyone wants to bring a loaded Chekhov into a theatre, but without an inordinate amount of training, somebody could get terribly hurt. Thank goodness we have Steven Dietz to take a palatable amount of the source work and explore it from so many different angles. For example, some scenes are sympathetic of Nina, others outright damning, some even allow her the opportunity to realize her self-absorbedness and apologize to Konstantin before his suicide. To see so many different approaches is enjoyable.
The actors attack their scenes with what I would consider the dominant Los Angeles aesthetic: a lockstep fidelity to scripted moments with carefully placed choices tied to the dynamics of prose. Useful in television and movie forms, yet without a somewhat Brechtian ability to comment on the character as the actor’s agent in a piece (whom the actor may then step aside from to comment on the agent’s utility as a representative of the actor within the play, evidenced in such things as the bewildering non-euclidian geometry of artifice seen in the still-running “The Fool and the Red Queen”) greater character arcs with a self-reflective bend are near-impossible. While I would consider this critical to Chekhov, the extemporaneous, sensual-yet-measured style so frequently exhibited by the “Los Angeles Aesthetic” establishes an “othering” of the source material, ultimately supporting the fundamental conceit of the piece. That resonates with me, and as such, I feel that elevates this piece from “clever metatheatrical scene work in a small upstairs theatre” to a hyperdimensional experience that exposes volumes about (in a partial list): Chekhov, Theatre, an American understanding of Chekhov, theatre in LA, over-interpretation, the phenomenon of “Mary Sues” or more specifically a worrying proclivity for Fan Fiction to excise poignant moments of loss for the sake of embracing a beloved character’s stasis at the expense of a crowning moment of glory for the sake of a yawning entropy of severely diminished returns, the red herring metaphor of the ‘seagull’, the ridiculousness of recursive theatricality (plays within plays), male-driven pseudo-feminism and how surprisingly useful pencils can be.
To wrap up, I thought the observation of this play in context was far more valuable than just showing up and seeing it, to a far greater extent than anything else I’ve seen in Fringe. Also – gauche though it may be to add additional information in the conclusion of an argument – in the interests of self-disclosure, I must admit that I have always despised Nina. Her self-obsession, coupled with her abject disinterest in anything except for her own immediate attention is one of the most frequently played-out tropes in the commedia of our business. Her archetype resonates with personalities who share her unrealistic aspirations, often failing to delight in the bitter fun deliberately poked at her by Chekhov as she finds herself descending into ruin, completely ignorant not only of the unfeasibility of her quixotic goals, yet also the simple fact that the choice to distance herself from Konstantin acts against her ability to pursue those goals in an achievable fashion.
But I’m no scholar, and everyone really was super-gorgeous.

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