Chekhov and Clowns

A favourite Stephen Sondheim lyric of mine: “There ought to be clowns; send in the clowns.” Daniele Finzi Pasca would approve. Complete with jugglers, acrobats, storytellers, and—yes—clowns, Finzi Pasca’s Donka: a letter to Chekhov takes the Russian author’s plays and stories to a fantastical circus-world of colour, light, music, and movement. At turns playful and dark, Donka retells Chekhov with muscular elegance and splendid wit.

While it nods to Three Sisters and The Seagull among several other plays and stories, Donka is more than a mise-en-scène of Chekhov’s works. Finzi Pasca’s play places Chekhov on stage alongside his characters: we learn about his career as a doctor and his struggle with tuberculosis. Above all, Donka appears to engage Chekhov in a conversation on stage. Its stunning displays meditate on the same distinct experiences that fixated the author and occupy his stories. The marriage works remarkably well, as Donka’s vignettes do unique service to Chekhov’s unmistakable style—his love of detail, his frank portrayal of joy and despair. Many of Donka’s scenes, including an acrobat spinning within a wheel across a cherry blossom-strewn stage, a life-size shadow play, and three smiling women trying to push each other off a trapeze, capture this Chekhovian aesthetic simply and powerfully.

(Perhaps my favourite vignette is a wintry scene where the actors skate across the stage and soar through the air, whooping and breaking balls of ice. As the music grows deafening, a spectator cannot help but be drawn completely into the clowns’ wild exuberance.) play’s vanishing point is Chekhov’s death from tuberculosis in 1904. Several motifs—wisecracks about medicine and dissection; slapstick sneezes that seem to shoot out the clowns’ brains—gain heavy significance as the play progresses; signature white costumes become progressively redder, as if flecked by the tubercular patient’s coughs; eventually, a sickbed emerges onto the stage. But Donka’s attitude at its end is more hopeful than dark, and the play revels in its spectacle even as it ponders death. An actor in red-and-white harlequin costume holds up empty snow-white boots, saying, “For us clowns, the soul is in the shoes. … We are all trying,” she reminds us, “to sink deeper into our shoes.” In these strange sentiments just as in its comic amusement, Donka captures Chekhov at his most life-affirming and spectacular.

Elsewhere in the play, the same clown clues us in on Donka’s aesthetic project: she says, “Life should be represented neither as it is, nor as it should be, but as it appears in dreams.” I will be dreaming of Donka for a very long time.

Gavin McGown, CC’13

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