Recently, Seattle-based director Diana Trotter sat down with long-time friend (and CCCT Artistic Director) Marilyn Langbehn to talk about her work on the upcoming production of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE:
ML: You went to grad school in Berkeley; what were some of your favorite places to hang out?
DT: One of the favorite lunch places for the theatre grad student gang at that time was the Durant Café—not only was the food good, but when UC raised its tuition by quite a bit one year the café owners lowered their prices because as they said, “we want to make sure the students can afford to eat.” We also all loved Larry Blake’s, Uncommon Grounds, Mario’s La Fiesta—and of course greasy pizza slices from Fat City. Many of our beloved hangouts are gone. Notice how they are all food centered? Hungry grad students…And we loved browsing all the bookstores—still love Moe’s! Heartbroken at the loss of Cody’s. A couple of us had part time jobs at Cal Performances and we got to see a ton of wonderful performers for free as a perk. Baryshnikov, Penn & Teller—I actually got to give Gillette Penn directions to the dressing rooms. He is REALLY TALL!!! And so many other amazing artists.
ML: Any downsides?
DT: The cost of housing was very high even then and I lived in some weird places. What is that myth about cockroaches being scared away by the light. Our cockroaches would march right up and practically grab the food out of our hands! We eventually gave up and named them.
ML: What was your first Chekhov and what do you remember of it?
DT: I hated Chekhov when I was an undergrad because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get that it was supposed to have a lot of humor—absurd humor at the thick-headedness of humans. When I finally figured that out, it changed everything. I wrote one of my best grad school papers on The Three Sisters. Most of the productions I saw—and there weren’t that many because not many people produce Chekhov—were just okay. Until I saw the National Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard which I thought was pretty close to perfect. It was subtly hilarious—a seeming impossibility that no one captures quite like Chekhov.
ML: What about Durang? Mine was Sister Mary Ignatius…; the actress was so convincing I actually crossed myself when she came onstage.
DT: I read The History of American Film by Durang as an undergrad and thought it was really brilliant and funny. So I bought his collection Christopher Durang Explains It All For You and burned through it. I directed one of his plays before I ever got to see one, but I saw a brilliant production of The Actor’s Nightmare at Berkeley. I continue to think he’s one of the funniest playwrights ever.
ML: Have you directed any Chekhov or Durang before? How is V&S&M&S the same/different?
DT: I have directed several Durang plays, and one Chekhov production. I taught both playwrights in my advanced acting style class for years—I took it as a personal challenge to get my students to love Chekhov as I did and save them from the humorless reading experience I had as an undergrad. And Durang is just so fun to play with. This play is the perfect combo of their styles of humor and realism that is just slightly off-kilter. Durang sweetens the pie a bit—in Chekhov’s world catastrophic things happen while the characters are distracted by mundane trivialities and unable to break out of their habitual patterns. Everything ends more or less as it began…only somehow worse. Durang’s world is more irrepressibly optimistic. There is at least the possibility of a happy ending—or anyway a happier one!
ML: OK, here’s your Barbara Walters “If you could be a tree” question: In an arm wresting match who would win, Durang or Chekhov?
DT: Chekhov would become intensely focused on the rules of the match and the details of the logistics and make an impassioned speech about the importance of fair play and healthy competition and the laziness of the ruling class, and then he would trip over the table leg and forget what he was talking about and proclaim it all pointless. Durang would be worried about hurting his wrist and suggest that maybe arm-wrestling is a bad idea because he got bullied as a child by the school’s champion arm-wrestler which is somehow the result of being taught by nuns. Needless to say, the actual match would not take place, but both men would be traumatized by the experience.
ML: Best. Answer. Ever.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens Friday, April 13 and plays weekends through May 6 at CCCT.