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Release: May 20, 2002

UI theater artists take new Chekhov variations back to Russia

Taking an American version of Chekhov to Russia might seem to be an improbable, “coals to Newcastle” undertaking. But University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts faculty member Carol MacVey and graduate students Mollie Mook and Robert Wray are doing just that, as the first Americans ever to perform at the International Chekhov Festival at Chekhov's estate in Melikhovo, about 50 miles south of Moscow.

They departed on May 16 with a production of Steven Deitz’s “The Nina Variations,” in which two characters from Chekhov’s “The Seagull” are offered many new chances to get it right. MacVey explains, “Dietz has used the two young characters, Nina and Treplev, and shaped 42 short variations on what these two might have said, could have said or should have said at various junctures in their meetings. Their talk revolves around the questions of what it means to be a playwright, what it means to be an actor, and what it means to love.”

This spring’s opportunity to perform in Russia resulted from MacVey’s research for her new translation of “The Seagull,” which she directed this season at the UI.

“Last August, while doing research for my production of ‘The Seagull,’ I visited the Chekhov estate, where he lived when he wrote the play,” she says. “After a picnic lunch with the director of the museum estate, he invited me to see their little theater, the site of their yearly international Chekhov conference, where scholars and researchers present papers on various Chekhov studies and theater companies present pieces either by or about Chekhov.

“When he learned that I was to direct ‘The Seagull,’ he invited me to bring that production to the festival. They had never had Americans present anything before. I told him I probably couldn't afford to bring an entire cast but that I would look for something much smaller that we could present. Hence, the choice of ‘The Nina Variations,’ which I directed in 1999 for University Theatres Second Stage.”

The conference invitation soon developed into in a more ambitious undertaking. “In the spirit of ‘variations’ I invited Victor Goultchenko, founder and director of the International Chekhov Fund, to collaborate with me in this way: He would also direct the play in Russia with two actors and we would merge the two productions. Some scenes would be done by two Russian actors, some by our two actors, and some scenes would be performed by one Russian and one American, each speaking his/her native language.

“Fortunately we were funded through the generosity of CREES (the Center for Research in Eastern European Studies) under the direction of Russell Valentino , a professor in the UI Russian Department. The office for the UI Vice President for Research also generously assisted us, so that we will be able to perform not only at the Melikhovo International Chekhov Festival, but also in Moscow at the Central Actors' House, oldest actor training institute in Russia, and at the Alexandrinsky Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, where ‘The Seagull’ was first performed in 1896!

“And through contacts with Vicki Hesli of the Political Science Department, we’re also traveling to the Ukraine to perform at Kiev’s Taras Shevshenko University in Kiev, a university with which the UI has a partnership. The plan is for the Russian director and the two Russian actors to visit the UI in 2003.”

“The Nina Variations” premiered in 1996 at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival and the UI production used a subsequent revision.

Dietz is one of America’s most prolific -- and most produced -- playwrights, with more than 20 plays to his credit, including “Lonely Planet,” “Private Eyes,” “God’s Country,” “More Fun Than Bowling,” “Dracula,” “Still Life With Iris,” “Halcyon Days” and “Trust.” His plays have been produced by more than 200 regional and off-Broadway theaters.

His honors include the 1994 PEN Center USA West Award in drama, a Drama-Logue Award, an Outer Critic’s Circle Nomination and grants from the Jerome Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.

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