WILLIAMSTOWN -- Audiences attending the Williamstown Theatre Festival's final Main Stage production, "A Month in the Country," shouldn't expect to see a conventional production, which casts the play as a romantic comedy.
Director Richard Nelson is bringing a new translation of Russian playwright Ivan Turgenev's play -- crafted in collaboration with the foremost contemporary Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky -- to the stage with a production that recasts it as a Checkovian drama.
"This play was ahead of its time. It was written in 1850, before [Anton] Checkov was even born. It was highly influential on Checkov's works, but it wasn't performed until 1872. It's revival came in 1909, after the Checkov plays, so in an odd way, Checkov paved the way for one of his influences," Nelson said Friday, during an interview in a rehearsal studio at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance in Williamstown. "It was never a romantic comedy. It's an ironic play. It's not so much about romance as it is about the complexities and confusions of desire and passion and it's dark. There's not a lot of plot to this play, but there's a whole lot of character."
The play, which runs from Aug. 2 to 19, centers around 29-year-old Natalya (Jessica Collins), wife to a wealthy landowner, Arkady Islaev (Louis Cancelmi), who experiences the act of desire for the first time, following the arrival her son's tutor, Alexei Mikhail Alexandrych
Nelson said he set out to pen a new translation of the play because of his dissatisfaction with current offerings.
"I felt there wasn't a clear, actable translation of the play in English available today. This is a classic play around the world, but I've found most translations of the play to be rather stilted and rather difficult to act," he said. "Also I felt the play has been misunderstood and often presented as a play about a middle-aged woman in a mid-life crisis who falls for a young guy. The main character is often played by a woman in her mid-50s, when in fact Turgenev makes it very clear that the woman is 29 and that her 30th birthday is a week away. It's a very different play."
In addition, Nelson is stripping away the contemporary stage trappings -- elaborate sets and costuming -- as a way to bring back the intimacy of the theater; reconnecting the actors and the audience. The first four rows of the Main Stage's seating will be removed for a stage that will sit out in the theater. The props will be minimal -- a few chairs and a bench. The cast, even when not performing, will remain on stage at all times.
"It's very different. You're required to use different [acting] muscles," Cancelmi, who starred as Algernon in the WTF's ‘Importance of Being Earnest,' said. "In my case, my two characters couldn't be more different. There's this sort of intimacy that comes with this."
Strong added, "I think this is new for a lot of us. Many of us read Peter Brooks' ‘The Empty Space' for this, which talks about stripping away the artifice of the theater and restoring the primacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience."
Nelson said another big change will include 20 to 30 microphones being hung from the ceiling above the stage, which will allow the actors to speak in normal tones and not be forced to project their voices throughout the theater -- making their performance more natural and raw.
"Why are we so hesitant to use the technology of sound that we have available to us -- it's those kinds of rules and rigidity that hold us back," he said. "It's a very psychological play. I want the audience to feel as if they are looking over the shoulders of the characters or peering through a peep-hole. I believe what we're doing here will only be lost on those who come to it with certain expectations."
Tickets can be purchased online at www.wtfestival.org, by phone at 413-597-3400, or in person at the Box Office at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass.