Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A QNY Theater Review: Chekhov Lizardbrain

Posted by Brooklyn Bill

On Monday evening, my buddy Jack and I went to see Chekhov Lizardbrain, an entertaining and unusual play inspired by Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and the life and work of autistic livestock-behavior expert Temple Grandin. It was created and presented by Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Co. and is back in New York as part of the Under the Radar Festival after a critically acclaimed run here in fall 2008.

The play is about a socially awkward botanist named Dmitri who has a more-confident alter ego named Chekhov Lizardbrain. Dmitri has bought a house in his hometown of Oswego, New York, after having gotten a Ph.D. in Portland, Oregon. The house belonged to childhood friends of Dmitri's, three brothers named Peter, Nicholas, and Sascha. Dmitri is trying to remember as much as he can about what led up to his purchase of the house, whose heater has failed in the dead of winter. In the majority of scenes, the brothers wear long underwear, top hats, and fake mustaches and act out fantastical versions of events; in Dmitri's more-realistic recollections, the guys wear regular clothes and work out their real-life family conflict: The two older brothers, who have moved away from Oswego, have to convince Sascha to sell his third of the house he's lived in his whole life, including while caring for their ailing parents.

The actors were all great, but extra praise must go to James Sugg, who earned an Obie for his performance as Dmitri/Chekhov Lizardbrain. He passes seamlessly between his two oddball characters.

The play's program tucks three quotes among the cast and crew biographies that provide insight into the themes of the play. The first two are snippets from Three Sisters:

"When I'm alone with another person, then I'm normal like everyone else. But in social gatherings I'm gloomy and shy and I talk all sorts of rubbish. But all the same I'm more honorable and well-bred than very, very many others. And I can prove it." — Solyony

"Forget your two or three hundred years, because even in a million years life will be just the same as ever. It doesn't change, it always goes on the same and follows its own laws. And those laws are none of our business. Or at least you'll never understand them. Think of the birds flying south for the winter, cranes for instance. They fly on and on, and it doesn't matter what ideas, big or small, they may have buzzing inside their heads, they'll still keep on flying without ever knowing why they do it or where they're going. They fly on and on, and what if they do throw up a few philosophers? Let them keep their philosophy so long as they don't stop flying." — Tuzenbach

The third quote is from one of Grandin's books, Animals in Translation:

"The human brain is really three different brains, each one built on top of the previous at three different times in evolutionary history. ... Roughly speaking, the reptilian brain corresponds to that in lizards and performs basic functions like breathing; the paleomammalian brain corresponds to that in mammals and handles emotion; and the neomammalian brain corresponds to that in primates—especially people—and handles reason and language. ... And here's the really interesting part: each one of those brains has its own kind of intelligence, its own sense of time and space, its own memory, and its own subjectivity."

After the play, Dan Rothenberg, the director, and three of the four actors fielded questions from the audience.* I believe it was Rothenberg who said the creative team tied together the notion that in Chekhov plays, every character is living in the future or the past with Grandin's view that one thing that separates people from animals is our ability to live in the future or the past inside our heads. (The other thing is our ability to experience two emotions at once.) Rothenberg said they came to see Solyony, a suitor of Irina, the youngest of the three sisters, as having Asperger syndrome. And Dmitri has AS too; he takes a while to process the news that the brothers' mother has died, he shrivels when Sascha hugs him, and he has difficulty presenting the brothers with a Japanese maple to plant in their garden in honor of their mother.

In response to a question, Dito van Reigersberg, who played Nicholas and was one of the show's creators, said they didn't meet in person with people who have an autism-spectrum disorder but they watched a lot of videos, including those by silentmiaow on YouTube, to gain insight into the various autism-related syndromes.

Sugg said, I think in all seriousness, that four days prior to the show's premier, there was no script. He said that originally Chekhov Lizardbrain was only a description of the show's inspirations and that only later in development did the character materialize.

CL is running through this Sunday at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center on the Lower East Side. It's definitely worth catching if you're intrigued by the ideas behind this fascinating experimental show. Hell, Sugg's performance alone more than justifies the cheap, $20 ticket price.

*I took a photo of the guys with my iPhone camera, but it was too bright to be usable. Much of the stage lighting was still on and so they had almost as many spotlights on them as W. at his post-Katrina photo op in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.


  1. Wow. You had me at the premise alone. Chekhov and Temple Grandin? I am so there. Thanks too for reminding me about the Under the Radar festival. I often forget about that one.

  2. Appealing. I first heard of Temple Grandin via Oliver Sacks a New Yorker.

  3. Tony: Temple Grandin's autobiography *Thinking in Pictures* is fascinating. I haven't read any of her subsequent books yet, that is her first. I plan on tackling *Animals in Translation* next.