“A few years ago–maybe five years ago–a lot of people were comparing my writing to Chekhov. And I didn’t understand. I mean, I’d read his plays, but I hadn’t read him deeply. And I didn’t know why anyone would compare my writing to his because he’s so associated with Realism, and that’s not what I do,” writer/performer Kristen Kosmas told me. “But because it kept coming up and kept coming up, I went back and started looking at his plays. I read them when I was quite young, and I feel like the humor in his plays is really sophisticated and subtle and was just a little over my head. But when I went back to him as an adult, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’”
I spoke to Kosmas only a couple days before the opening of her latest work, There There, at the Chocolate Factory, where it’s also part of this year’s COIL Festival (the play re-opens Thurs., Jan.3 after a holiday break, and runs through Jan. 12; tickets $20). Although she’s probably best-known as a playwright today, for such works as 2008′s Hello Failure (which George Hunka–one of her many admirers–called “one of the brightest lights of the season”), Kosmas’s career started as a solo performer and spoken word artist in the Nineties in Seattle, Washington. It was only after she decamped for NYC in 1998 that she turned to writing multi-part play texts. But wanting the chance to return to her roots, Kosmas started working on There There several years ago, producing a draft while studying with Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College.
The conceit of the show is fairly simple: the play the audience has entered to see is a monologue performance, based on the minor character of Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which is performed by actor Christopher Walken. Mr. Walken, however, has mysteriously been injured prior to this evening’s performance, so his role, lacking a proper understudy, will be performed by the text’s proofreader Karen (played by Kosmas), being the only person who knows anything about the text (which isn’t much). Oh, and the performance is taking place in a Red Army Hall somewhere in Russia, so there’s a translator (Larisa Tokmakova) doing real-time translation into Russian.
“At first when I had the idea to make something inspired by [Vassily Vasilyevich], I wanted it to be translated into Russian in a flat or plain way,” Kosmas continued. “I wanted to make a solo performance, a monologue for myself to perform, and since it’s from Chekhov, I thought it would be really beautiful, aesthetically, if the entire performance is translated into Russian. Like a murmur.”
“Originally I thought everything I’d do onstage would be minimized by this other actor,” she added. “But once I knew there were two languages and two actors onstage, my playwright mind just sort of went with that.”
The result is a show that’s actually a subtle duet between Kosmas’s character and Tokmakova’s, who both counterpoints Kosmas’s hyper-emotional performance through her largely uninflected recitation (doubled, I can only assume, by the translation, by Matvei Yankelevich, of Kosmas’s interpretation of Chekhov back into Russian), as well as intervening throughout, breaking the action to rein in Kosmas’s character. The result is both hilarious and touching, as Kosmas slowly reveals the complex relationship Karen has developed to Vassily Vasilyevich.
There There is also the latest example of contemporary theater makers excavating Chekhov for material. In addition to Annie Baker’s much praised Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep, and Target Margin’s under-appreciated take on the same text, both from earlier this year, Half Straddle’s Seagull (Thinking of You) is another highly anticipated premier at this year’s COIL Festival, where it’s being co-presented with the New Ohio Theater.
Asked to comment on Chekhov’s enduring (or perhaps resurgent) fascination for contemporary artists, Kosmas offered: “I think the moment he was in theatrically… He didn’t know he was making Realism, so his plays are really inconsistent, formally. They’re kind of hybrid, like he’s marrying possibilities, these very contemporary–to him–possibilities in the theater that are opening up together in ways that are even clunky, I think, sometimes. And I love that.
“So I’m curious if it’s that aspect of his work that might be inspiring people right now, even if it’s unconscious. Because we’re in a similar moment. You can come in and do all these different things simultaneoiusly, with all the possibilities we’ve inherited in the theater. Now we’re making these syntheses, these plays that have very traditional or conventional elements together with very unconventional elements, poetic language with very pedestrian language. Realistic moments in plays that also have these metatheatrical conepts also. These beautiful hybrids are happening because of everything we can do, and I feel like he was also doing that to some degree. So maybe that’s why we feel so tethered to him.”