Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: When in Doubt, Try Again

By Michael Block 

You don't always get a chance to get locked in a room with someone to hash out your emotions. Steven Dietz takes two of Anton Chekhov's star-crossed lovers and forces them to reexamine their final moments together. Forty-three times to be precise. Presented by The Bridge Production Company, The Nina Variations is an exploration of character in stripped down fashion.
Directed by Coleman Ray Clark, Steven Dietz's The Nina Variation takes Treplev and Nina from Chekhov's The Seagull and pits them in a room together until they say what they truly want to say. Despite being a little over an hour, this play is jam-packed with content. The Nina Variations isn’t just a new way to look at Chekhov. Dietz’s text goes beyond the two characters and their content from the source material by exploring contemporary themes. For example, the examination of the connection between actor and writer as it transcends the room. It’s just one of the many alternate revisions Dietz plays with. Dietz has provided a near blank canvas as to how this play can be presented. From the characters to the vision, Dietz’s text is prepared for anything. Director Coleman Ray Clark takes the Chekhovian comedy approach, but there still are some hardy laughs to be had. The situation is funny for these characters as their saga never stops. But it stays stagnant in the dramatics. Clark tries to find the beats where tone can shift, allowing reprieve from constant heartbreak. And those moments are some of the best in the production.
Photo by Kai Ravelson
With only two actors on stage, how the characters are tackled is essential to the overall tone of Dietz’s play. There is a grand opportunity to create new characters through the broad strokes provided by the knowledge of Chekhov’s original play. Variety is the spice of life. Variety was important to this arc. And it didn’t always happen. Overall, Nina is a difficult character due to the circumstances of her past. Jasmine Kimiko Stiefel brings heaps of angst, integrating a life of pain into her Nina. Where The Seagull ended, it’s a logical decision but it becomes monotonous within the forty-three variations. There are some beats where she breaks through thanks to Dietz’s text. They happen to be some of her brightest spots. Playing opposite Stiefel was Jake Owen as Treplev. Like a writer, Owen tapped into raw emotion. Even if Treplev didn’t control the scene, he ensured that he had a control over Nina. There was an ease about him as he drifted through the world. Both Stiefel and Owen’s ability to grasp classical text heightened Dietz’s own.
The Nina Variations is a relationship play parading as a language play. The words marinate in each of the scenes and Clark’s ability to keep the focus on the text was key. With just a minimal amount of furniture on stage, Clark kept the piece moving, never adjusting the lights between variations. But the variations on the transitional music may be subject to taste. The compositions by Peyton Clifford featured a wide variety of emotions, rarely ever evoking the action prior or what’s to come. In a way, they felt stuck in the wrong period, despite The Nina Variations being timeless.
The Nina Variations is a captivating play to those Chekhovian scholars. If the source material or the characters are not to your liking, The Nina Variations may feel like a tedious theatrical exercise. Thankfully, this production was anything but.