Sometimes the past is more real than the present

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“What if they went to Moscow?” Photo courtesy of the artist.

What’s the difference between a play and a film?

That’s one of the questions that Brazilian director Christiane Jatahy asks with her stunning piece “What if they went to Moscow?”  

How Ms. Jatahy poses that elegant question is a little complicated so stick with me.

The audience for the piece is split into two different groups.  One group gets tickets that say “Cinema” the other tickets that say “Theater”.  So if you were in the cinema group you made your way into a makeshift movie theatre and watched a film.  While that doesn’t sound extraordinary what makes it special is that film was being made in real time in the theater next door.  

In fact, what that other audience group witnessed was in part the making of that film.  Both audiences see both the film and the play - it’s only a question of which they experience first.

So in one space you’ve got an audience watching a movie of a story that’s unfolding in real time next door in front of another audience that’s experiencing a play that includes the making of that movie.

Just this conceptual feat would be stunning, what’s even more striking is both the film and the play are Ms. Jatahy’s take on Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” - and both are absolutely spell-binding.

If you’re Chekhov’s a little rusty, “Three Sisters” is the story of three women who are trapped in their own lives. The oldest in the role of the un-married matriach, the middle sister in a loveless marriage trying to regain the passion of youth, and the youngest stuck between being a girl and a woman of the world.  Ms. Jatahy focuses her adaptation on the sisters themselves and only hints at the other characters. We’re in present day Brazil at the youngest sister’s 20th birthday party. The action unfolding, more or less, in a single night in real time.

For the film, the portraits are immediate and personal, captured either in direct confessional address to the camera or telling silent observations. The lens captures the little details - the longing glance out the window, the seductive flirting eyes with a new lover, the goofy look you give when someone insists on filming you at a party. It’s a deeply moving portrait of three woman confronting their lives and their dreams - both those that have been lost and those that have yet to come. It all feels very real and raw.

For the play, the story is more communal and personal in a different way.  After all, when an actor confesses to the camera you’re not really there. But in the theater, if an actor looks you in the eye - she’s really talking to you, isn’t she? Or maybe, in this case, if the actor hands you a glass of wine, or a piece of cake, or invites you onstage for a dance party - that’s really happening isn’t it?  So in the play there’s both something more real and also more artificial - because you’re seeing actors and stagehands really move walls to create an artificial house that exists only in that movie.

What you’re left with after experience both the play and the film are profound questions about how we create our own narratives - not just in the cinema or the theatre - but in our own lives.  That’s where Ms. Jatahy and her extraordinary actors urge us to go with both the play and the film - asking as we struggle to write a story in the present, how do we carry the weight of the past?

“What if they went to Moscow?” played at the REDCAT theatre downtown this last weekend.