THE BEAR by Anton Chekhov, directed by Christopher Morris, with David Ferry, Nicole St. Martin and Robert Nasmith. Presented by Preface Theatre and the Art Gallery of Ontario at the Grange (317 Dundas West). Opens Wednesday (January 12) and runs through January 22, Tuesday-Sunday 2 pm, Wednesday 7:30 pm. $20, stu/srs/AGO members/Equity $16 (includes admission to AGO). 416-979-6608. Rating: NNNNN
Don't always believe what a playwright says about his own play.
Take Anton Chekhov's opinion of his one-act play The Bear, which Christopher Morris is directing for Preface Theatre.
"Chekhov calls it a farce, but like all his works it's very serious underneath," says the talented actor, director and writer, whose troupe is giving the show an environmental staging in the AGO's historic Grange.
"Popova mourns one minute for her dead husband and in the next falls for Smirnov, who is hitting her up for the money she owes him. He's a brash, swearing man, but when you see him in a moment alone, you realize he's a feeling person.
"My first take on the play," recalls Morris, "was that these people were crazy. But later I realized that something deep and complex was going on. These characters engage, dare and take risks."
A major influence on Morris's view of The Bear comes from his mentor, Sasa Lukac, a director and teacher who was raised in Serbia and ran a national theatre in Belgrade before coming to Canada.
"Sasa pointed out to me that there's something in the Slavic mentality that enjoys living in chaos and having a problem. That's the defining point for the people in The Bear."
Morris got to experience that Slavic sensation when he travelled and performed with director Paul Thompson on The Georgian Expedition, a collective piece created in the republic of Georgia, and collaborated with fellow Theatrefront members as well as local Bosnian actors in Sarajevo. He's soon going back to Georgia to develop his directing skills.
"When we travelled to Georgia, Paul made us go and see plays every night. What I loved was the relationship between the audience and the plays they saw. I think there's some truth to the fact that theatre is dying here in the West, but that's not happening in places like Georgia, where the same production of Hamlet has been running for three years.
"The audiences have a real connection to the show and fucking love it. It speaks to them, means something to them, tells them a bigger story. And it's done in a specific theatrical style that's passionate, scary and outrageous, just shy of stepping into melodrama."
On top of that, adds Morris, no script is sacred. A director can change the order of scenes, rewrite them and add characters.
"At first I thought, 'What the hell is this? The audience is going nuts, but I don't understand why.' Then I realized that while the result didn't always make literal sense, the director had caught the essence, the visceral emotion of a play.
"As a director, I want to explore that, make the theatre that I help create do the same for me."
He's developing Demons, a script he began writing in the Buddies AnteChamber series, and wants to spend more time in the director's chair.
"So much Canadian theatre is about easy stories told in a bubble. We're at a standstill," he suggests. "The more straightforward, TV-like theatre I see here, the more I want to change it."
Travel is essential to his creativity. He's been to Nunavut, where he staged a community-based piece about drug and alcohol abuse. Later this year he joins other Theatrefront members on a journey to South Africa to collaborate with Baxter Theatre.
"Travelling inspires me as an artist. It helps battle my fear of taking the more difficult path, the one that'll help me move beyond where I am. Learning new things from others, we come back changed ourselves."