In Chekhov Production, Casting Unbeholden to Gender Offers Important Life Lesson

The viewer in Konstantin Bogomolov’s production of 'Platonov' totally suspends disbelief and receives what is being conveyed onstage in full.

Anna Radwan-Gancarczyk, right, as Platanov.
M. Hueckel

While attending a series of theater meetings in Warsaw recently, I saw an artistic experiment that was one of the most instructive experiences I’ve had during my life as a theater-goer – Russian director Konstantin Bogomolov’s production of “Platonov” at the National Stary Theater (the Old Theater) of Krakow, considered one of Poland’s two national theaters.

“Platonov” is an early, unfinished and quite problematic play, to put it mildly, by Anton Chekhov. Many Chekhov readers and fans are unfamiliar with it, which is why directors and theaters are tempted to deal with it.

The show’s distinction wasn’t in the young Russian director’s ingenious stage interpretation of a novice playwrite’s sketches. Even before entering the theater, I knew it was a play with a gimmick – the women’s roles were played by men and the men’s roles were played by women.

No big deal, every theater buff will say immediately. Shakespeare’s plays had men playing women’s roles. In our own day, we’ve had plays with an all-male cast (“Twelfth Night,” directed by Hanan Snir with Doron Tavori in the 70s,) and actresses playing Hamlet or King Lear. (In Israel we missed the opportunity of seeing Orna Porat as King Lear and Hanna Maron as his fool.) These days, with drag and camp culture and the fluidity of gender definitions, it appears that everything has gone, goes and will go.

Not in this show. The men on stage, in women’s parts, looked (trousers, beard, bald head or pot belly,) acted and spoke like men, with no nuance of coquetry or femininity. The women looked and acted with no display or emphasis on masculine physicality. The acting was devoid of emotion and sentimentality, ostensibly anti-dramatic.

Since Polish (like Hebrew, but unlike English) is a gendered language – the verb endings in first and second singular person are either male or female – the only information about the character’s sex and gender was conveyed to the viewer by listening closely to the words coming out of the actor or actress’s mouth (contrary to what his eyes were seeing.)

The amazing thing for me in this experience was that my viewer’s consciousness accepted this convention in just a few minutes. In contrast to what the eye saw or the ear heard, there were human entities on the stage, live energies, without gender marks or characterizations that would have implanted prejudices (Oh, this is how a woman acts; Oh, he’s such a man.)

It was instructive, because it proved to me that in theater – which takes place in the present – one may deceive the senses and reach one of the goals, i.e. a viewer can totally suspend his disbelief in a show and receive what the stage is conveying to him in full. It was also a superb estrangement of the whole sex and gender issue, seeing and implications. Even, if you will, Brechtian alienation from the emotional stuff of the play’s plot and the souls of its characters.

It teaches an important lesson about inter-human behavior in everyday life, and not only on stage. Too often we treat those closest to us as the emotional entities we take them to be and we see them without actually seeing. Or, on the other hand, maybe in life we should believe less in what we see (clothing and physical gestures) and listen to the words, receiving human emotions that haven’t been assimilated with sex or gender.

It wasn’t simply a brilliant theater exercise, which can be applied to any play if only to obtain this shocking effect, or to writing a play whose plot takes advantage of this gender and sexual “undressing” in a way that fits in with the “gimmick.”

In this play, Platonov is a young country teacher in a Russian province. He is stuck in a loveless marriage, disappointed with life and generally, but is persistently and relentlessly courted by women of all ages. Without willpower and easily tempted, he responds to everyone’s courting. Some of the subjects the play deal with are the characteristics of men and women, but mostly it deals with falling in love, disappointment, sex and marriage.

Platonov, in his own eyes and those of the women around him, is a mixture of Hamlet and Don Juan. How much more interesting to see this character in a long skirt and a feminine profile, persistently wooed and responding to the character of a tall young woman with long dark hair, a beard and a bass voice.

In one draft of the play, there is a Jewish character, Vengerovich, in whose mouth Chekhov put a monolog about the Jewish face lacking poetry. His character is played by a woman in a little black dress, with a tall blond coiffure and satyr-like pointy ears. In contrast, the vagabond-robber Osip, who is also played by a woman, wears a bearskin.

Because even brilliant directors fail sometimes when they direct according to the “why not?” school. You ask the director “why did you put Lopakhin’s monolog from “The Cherry Orchard,” about his buying the orchard, in this play and place it in the mouth of a Jew?” And he replies: “Why not?”