Dr Chekhov: Ward 6,
Theatre Smith-Gilmour, Toronto, Ontario
Words, Words, Words
From 28 February to 28 March at the Factory Theatre, Toronto audiences had the opportunity see Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour's dramatization of A. P. Chekhov's story "Ward Number Six", Dr. Chekhov: Ward 6. The play was directed by the dramatizers, who are also the artistic directors of the company performing the play, Theatre Smith-Gilmour. This production was the final and most disappointing installment of the company's trilogy of Chekhov adaptations, which included Chekhov Shorts and Chekhov Longs…In the Ravine.
With a running time of 100 minutes, the play's plot is identical to that of Chekhov's story. Dr. Andrei Ragin (Michele Smith) arrives in a provincial town to run the hospital, which is staffed by corrupt doctors and nurses whose main goal is not to heal and comfort, but rather to secure material gain. Full of idealism and half-digested philosophy, Ragin, instead of instituting reforms at the hospital, proceeds to settle into a monotonous routine of avoiding the hospital, reading, and complaining to the postmaster, Mikhail Aver'ianovich (Paul Fateux), about the lack of intelligent people in town. One day Ragin visits the hospital's psychiatric ward, where he meets Dmitri Gromov (Doug Gilmour), a patient with whom Ragin soon feels a special bond. After visiting Gromov regularly, Ragin is removed from his position, declared insane, and confined to the ward, where he quickly dies. Not a single incident, not even a trip to Moscow and Poland that confirms the audience's suspicious that the postmaster is not the type of intelligent person whom Ragin values, is omitted in the adaptation.
The dramatizers' faithfulness to Chekhov's text, however, fails to benefit the production. This is partly because, as Robert Stam points out, fidelity is not a good criterion by which to judge adaptations and dramatizations because it relies on the existence of a chimera. Fidelity presupposes that each literary work contains a single definitive reading that can be transferred from one medium to another (Stam 57). The problem with this belief is that all literary works contain multiple readings, only one of which can make the shift from prose work to dramatic work. In other words, adaptation demands that the adapters interpret a work. Herein lies the core problem of Theatre Smith-Gilmour's dramatization of "Ward Number Six": they never interpret the source material, which results in less of a theatrical production and more of a reading as they rely less on the ability of theatre to "show" things and more on the words of Chekhov's omniscient narrator to tell the audience how to interpret things.
An example of this is Ragin's inability to improve conditions in the hospital. Instead of allowing Smith's - hopefully intentional - monotone and muted actions as Ragin to demonstrate the hypocrisy and spiritual deadness that are at the root of the protagonist's impotence, Gilmour, who removes his hat to distinguish between his roles as narrator and Gromov, takes off his hat and tells the audience:
Andrei Ragin much admires intellect and integrity, but lacks the character and confidence to create a decent, intelligent environment. As for issuing orders and prohibits or insisting on anything, he is positively impotent, as if he had taken a vow never to raise his voice or use the imperative mood. He finds it hard to say "give me this" or "bring me that."…But to tell his manager to stop pilfering, to sack him, to do away with his parasitical sinecure entirely…such things are absolutely beyond him. When people try to hoodwink Dr. Ragin, when they flatter him or bring him some blatantly falsified account to sigh, he turns red as a beetroot and feels guilty - but signs it all the same. He squirms when his patients complain of hunger or rude nurses. (Chekhov 131)
If this were an isolated occurrence or if what was shown on stage somehow illuminated the words, the excess verbiage could be forgiven. Unfortunately, though, the narration is repeatedly used to alleviate some of the difficulties of portraying Chekhov's complex characters onstage.
The predominance of narration mars the production to such an extent that the only successful parts of it are those that feature little or no narration. An example of this occurs towards the very end of the play after Ragin has been committed. Since only four actors play all of the parts, there are occasional onstage costume changes. Earlier in the play, when Ann-Marie Kerr, who played the mental patient Moiseika, puts on that costume, she merely rolls up her sleeves and pant legs so that they are not visible from underneath the hospital gown. Ragin also changes into his hospital gown on stage, but in contrast to Kerr's earlier transformation into Moiseika, Ragin actually removes his street clothes before putting on the uniform of ward 6. The removal of all street clothes suggests that the ward is an indelible part of Ragin and that he will never be able to leave it, since the outside world's uniform is now missing.
Another well-executed sequence, although it is less successful within the context of the entire play, occurs during the opening of Dr. Chekhov: Ward 6. The play opens with a brief description of Gromov's life before his descent into madness. During this sequence, the audience is not told in words that Gromov loved books, but was shown this love whenever he enters his apartment. Upon stepping across the threshold, a flock of books, which he also uses as a pillow, flies out from the wings and comes to rest at his feet. Another example is Gromov's brief transformation into a stereotypical street-corner prophet of doom. Instead of being told that everyone, including each audience member, is one small step from being considered insane by the general populace, the company chooses to demonstrate this by drawing on a common Anglo-American cultural trope.
The opening's reliance on slapstick and situational comedy separates it from the rest of the production, which has a darker tone. One result is the sensation of watching two different plays: one depicting Gromov's life before insanity and another depicting Ragin's after Gromov's confinement to the ward. While an argument for the stylistic shift could be made, as the play progresses and the production continually uses bits of comic relief, the opening and the humorous sequences become more and more incongruous with the bulk of the production. For example, when a patient in tremendous pain is forced to hand over a bribe for ineffective treatment, certain comic touches, i.e. the patient speaks a Slavic-sounding gibberish and acts as though in a silent film, reduce the abhorrent nature of the incident by reducing the patient to a caricature.
Ultimately, Hamlet's advice to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" is not followed in Dr. Chekhov: Ward 6 -- either the action is inappropriate to the word or so much is invested in the word that the action is forgotten altogether.
Chekhov, Anton. "Ward Number Six." Trans. Ronald Hingley. The Oxford Chekhov.
Vol. 6. Ed. Ronald Hingley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 119-68.
Stam, Robert. "Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation." Film Adaptation. Ed. James Naremore. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2000. 54-76.
© J. Olson