The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s fall season has begun with playwright Steven Dietz’s The Nina Variations, a take on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull — specifically the final scene, in which Nina, a young actor, talks with Treplev, who has loved her hopelessly for years and who also has despaired of his own success as a writer. Dietz has written 42 variations on this scene, some of which hew somewhat to the plot of the original, while others use Chekhov’s work as a taking-off point.
Artistic director Stephen Weitz had long been drawn to the play, and he decided the company could make it work through video. But how, he wondered, could the power and immediacy of this famous scene be communicated by actors who, because of the coronavirus, had had no chance to actually rehearse together?
He hit on the idea of casting five real-life theater couples, with each couple taking on a handful of Dietz’s playlets, with the results organized thematically by associate producer Heather Beasley. Each couple would arrive in turn at the BETC rehearsal space through the back entrance to perform; the camera people would be stationed at a distance, and after each couple left, the entire place would be sanitized.
The roles of Nina and Treplev are being played by Heather Doris and Casey Andree; Tresha Farris and Sean Michael Cummings; Chloe McLeod and Susannah McLeod; Luke Sorge and Adrian Egolf; and Jim Hunt and Josh Hartwell. The last two are not an actual couple, Hunt explains, but their friendship is long and deep and, since they regularly spend their evenings together, they are within each others’ protective bubbles.
Weitz’s approach, born of necessity, created some unexpected benefits. The relationships between the pairs “inform how they make character choices and how they interact,” says Weitz. “They can be more playful or more serious. There are undercurrents baked into a situation like this that you might otherwise need to be rehearsing for weeks to find. It’s fascinating what they all brought into the room with them.”
Sorge and Egolf have acted together on stage before, in Duncan McMillan’s Lungs at Miners Alley, where their work communicated an extraordinary level of trust and feeling. Casting in The Nina Variations is gender-fluid, so Sorge plays Nina and Egolf Treplev. Sorge found acting with his wife a fine creative experience. Though he had done some theater work in high school and college, he says, it was Egolf who persuaded him to deepen his participation, urging him to attend an audition she was going to. “She sort of forced me,” says Sorge. “She was instrumental in helping me get started and offering advice. She’s a wonderful acting teacher. But she also helped with etiquette. She showed me, here’s the way these things are done. Otherwise I’d probably have made a fool of myself.”
Asked if there’s any competitive tension when both partners work in theater, Sorge responds, “We both really admire the other’s talent. To me, she’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. There’s not a lot of jealousy or infighting. The only time I feel jealous is when she doesn’t get a part. She opened up the community to me and helped me make some of my best friends in the world.”
Hunt, who plays Nina in his pairing, was intrigued by the intensity of Hartwell’s performance: “The more he did Treplev, the more I thought, he is this person...he is this tortured writer. A struggling writer is something he was born to play. It’s a window into Josh. I will be shocked if he doesn’t shine.”
As for his own performance, Hunt says, “I don’t try to act like a woman; I don’t try to act young. I say these beautiful lines. I’m as wrong for Nina as anyone could possibly be, but I think it works.”
For all the actors, simply getting to work again in this time of theatrical drought is a joy.
“Actors have been suffering because the art is so closely tied to themselves and their identities,” says Weitz.
“We didn’t know when we would be acting again, literally,” says Sorge. “The anxiety of wondering when will theater happen again is real. We were very fortunate to be able to work on this piece. But it’s different from what we usually do. There’s no audience. Learning cameras and film acting on the fly required a different skill set and a lot of learning.”
“We’re not filmmakers,” says Weitz, “and we also were very clear when we set out to create this that we weren’t looking to make a movie. No super close-ups or film devices, but a piece of live theater.”
“I think it’s a really interesting experiment and also a really sweet play,” Sorge concludes.
The Nina Variations runs through August 30. Tickets are $25 for an individual and $45 for group at-home viewing; the show is free to BETC members. Find out more about membership on the BETC website or go directly to The Nina Variations.
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