A wintry wind of despair and futility sweeps over “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” the world-preem stage adaptation of a Chekhov short story by MTYZ Theater/Moscow New Generation Theater, presented by the Yale Repertory Theater. The stark, stylish production, presented in Russian with English subtitles, is an existential journey that evokes Beckett, Pinter and Robert Wilson in its precise attention to time, space and detail — but with a Baltic sensibility that also embraces dark humor, irony and humanity.
The production is adapted and staged by Kama Ginkas, a Lithuanian-born Russian Jew, whose theater company presented two other prose-to-stage shows in the U.S. recently: “K.I. From Crime” (an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”) at Bard College in August and “Lady With a Lapdog” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in September.
Ginkas gets to the heart of Chekhov’s simple story by presenting the tale at its most primal level, with spare text that includes just snippets of narrative and dialogue over its 85-minute running time. The methodical pace captures the daily dreariness of the peasant life, but often its deliberate rhythms and brooding atmosphere wear thin when the thematic points are endlessly repeated.
In Chekhov’s story, things are bleak for Yakov Ivanov, the 70-year-old coffin maker living in a rural hamlet where folks have a tendency to live long lives.
Deprived of a decent living, the miserable, sullen and heartless man spends much of the time calculating the financial losses of his life. Besides his carpentry skills, he also plays fiddle in a Jewish band, but with no joy and little comfort.
Another musician, Rothschild, is often the recipient of Yakov’s terrible temper as he lashes out in anti-Semitic rages.
Yakov’s long-suffering wife becomes ill and happily escapes this wretched world through death, but when he faces his own demise, Yakov finally reconsiders his life.
The story of such a pleasureless life could easily be deadly, but with this quartet of actors the effect is mesmerizing. Valerii Berinov’s Yakov is a bear of a man, endlessly compelling: formidable, unpredictable and fierce, yet with touches of profound introspection and even humor. Arina Nesterova as his wife is a wilted flower who blooms into vibrant youth in a flashback that tells of happier times for the couple.
Igor Yasulovich plays Rothschild with a blend of fearlessness, terror and, in the play’s final moments, transcendent joy. Alexei Dubrovsky plays the doctor’s assistant with an appropriate sense of fatalism and ennui.
Sergei Barkhin’s striking and symbolic set is an ecosystem of wood: Timbers of pine represent the forested landscape; coffins double as huts and vice versa; a large tree looms in the background, its womblike hollow becoming Yakov’s final resting place.
Unlike the Rep’s previous attempt to adapt a short story to the stage — last spring’s “The Black Monk” — this production is true to its material. Artistic director James Bundy, by going to the author’s home country, has returned with a company and a production with real integrity.