Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Donka: A Letter to Chekov, Written and Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca

I haven’t stopped thinking about Donka: A Letter to Chekov since I saw it last Saturday night. I had never been to Aulnay-sur-Bois, in fact, I had never thought of it as anywhere other than a stop on the way to Charles de Gaulle. I forget that it’s often in these out of the way, difficult to get to suburbs that Paris hosts some of its most exciting experimental theatre. Donka was one of those memorable performances that I would travel much further than Aulnay-sur-Bois to see again and again.

I recently saw Cirque Eloize’s latest production, I.D., at Chaillot, so the genre of the “new circus” — a hybrid form that brings together circus acts, dance, music, spectacular lighting shows and theatre to create a form of contemporary entertainment that integrates high and low forms, appeals to young and old, and leaves its audience mesmerized — is not new to me.

While I make the connection to Cirque Eloize, Donka is a cut above – for me at least – because of all that is signified in a subtitle that sees it embrace one of the most solemn writers of the 19th century. Donka is a letter to Chekov. So as well as being visual and sensory, dreamy and filled with yearning, Donka is both a eulogy to and a dialogue with Chekov that, unlike his plays, does not hinge on language or words. I was worried at the beginning of the performance that I was missing something as it opened with a man and a woman telling a story in heavily accented French of a Russian nobleman who builds a castle at the lake of Lugano. I was lost. I was convinced I had missed the point, that there was a reason and a context for this discussion that I had not heard. But infact, Lugano is simply the place where the writer/director, Daniele Finzi Pasca, has a house. And so, while Donka is for Chekov, and constantly turns around to look at the 19th century, the performance is also a letter written by the reality of the performers lives —musicians, clowns, actors, acrobats—on stage, in the present. In the sparse, yet poetic dialogues and monologues, they call each other by their real names, at times they break into their own language, and erupt into the talents and tricks of their own bodies.

Donka is a letter to Chekov that uses words sparingly. The result being that what is more important than words is what happens between the words, in the tone and the silences of the long Russian summer afternoons, on the boat, in the hospital beds, and drawing rooms that Chekov finds, inhabits, and in which Donka’s performers cavort. For in these spaces, and in the spaces between words, Donka captures the mood (in the French sense of humeur) of Chekov, and all the melancholy and angst of those in his fictions.

Again unlike Chekov’s men and woman who are trapped and limited by the social roles given to them, in Donka, the performers glide between men and women, between doctors, nurses and patients: there is nothing fixed, nothing limited by the forces of language, costume, or social form. There are moments of hilarity, moments of tenderness, struggle, and wonder shared between performers and the children and adults who filled the audience. And neither are the actions and movements, the roles of the body in command of the acts and story vignettes performed. Motions are unfinished, carefully crafted mistakes are made, the actors lose their nerve, clowning around, being gregarious with each other, with themselves, with us. And so, Donka is much more than a series of fragments demonstrating the mind-boggling manoeuvres of the human body. Although there is plenty of that, Donka is a true merging of theatre and circus, in which clowns become servants, patients are transformed into contortionists, the doctor becomes a juggler, and dancers slide effortlessly into their own audience.


Cecilia Sayad said...

Thanks for the very inspired and lucid words on Donka, Frances! You said it perfectly.


Beatriz Sayad said...

Fraces! Merci pour ce beau cadeau! On a tous lu et on voulais te remercier de partager ton regard avec nous! On aimerais poster ça sur notre page sur facebook, es tu d'accord? Je t'embrasse Beatriz