Last Friday night I had a chance to catch my friend Rachel in the penultimate performance of The Nina Variations with Gobotrick Theatre Company. When I first heard the premise of the play, I’ll admit, I was a little reluctant to believe it would be even mildly tolerable. The Nina Variations revisits the last scene of Chekhov’s The Seagull. You know the one right before Treplev blows his brains out. The play begins with Treplev at his desk and Nina making her slow way to the door. Once she crosses the threshold, the first of over forty different variations of what could have transpired instead begins, complete with a running onstage counter to help you keep track of them all (also to help mark what are sometimes very subtle transitions between variations). This concept just smacked of the sort of pretentiousness I associate with assistant theatre professors who wear black wool turtlenecks even in the summer. I mean, after forty-something retreads of the same depressing scene I thought I’d want to blow my brains out. I went though because my friend Rachel McGinnis was performing the role of Nina.
I would see Rachel in anything. The last show I saw her in left me weepy for three days. I mean, it was Crimes of the Heart which is sort of the Terms of Endearment of the theatre world so you should give me a pass on that one but still. She is amazing. I met her doing The New Jersey Book of the Dead with the Vestige Group. I played her girlfriend Cass, and got to look into her eyes as she recited some of the worst lines ever said on stage with complete heart and conviction. (Yeah, so I’m not a huge fan of Jason Grote. TNJBotD is a deeply flawed, if not truly horrible, play. It involved shamantic trances, onstage masturbation, one scene repeated at least three times, setting a homeless man on fire, and oh yeah, GRAPHIC IMAGERY FROM 9/11. Don’t you want to rush out and see that? And that’s after Susie killed the completely confusing time-traveling scenes into ancient Greece or the pyramids, and also the dildo I was supposed to present to Rachel’s character on a pillow. Enough? I thought so. I’ll stop now.) Waiting for the show to start, I saw her boyfriend Dave a few rows back. He was the aforementioned onstage masturbator. Sometime during or after that performance, they fell in love.
But I digress. This was an exceptional show. Every element of the production was carefully considered and executed. Rachel was unsurprisingly, a wonderful Nina – smiles and bossy flirtation in one variation, pure sorrowful longing in the next. Aaron Hallaway as Treplev possessed such innate naturalistic abilities that it was shocking how a performance that was sometimes so subtle worked so perfectly onstage. It was the elegant and simple staging that fostered this intimacy and made the audience care so much about what seemed in theory (at least to my cynical mind) to be an academic exercise for Chekhov fans, or maybe its own form of onstage masturbation.
One last thing, In an old Chronicle in our selection of er, bathroom reading, I learned that the play was in fact written by a professor. Steven Dietz teaches playwriting and screenwriting at UT. Something tells me he doesn’t wear black turtlenecks though. I mean its really hot here.