Remember Chekhov Lizardbrain

01/15/2010 8:00 AM |

At the center of Chekhov Lizardbrain (through January 17 at CSV Cultural Center for the Under the Radar Festival) is the assertion that "Memory is not like a film." The meaning of that pronouncement is immediately clear: A memory is not an exact replica of the events that occurred; memory cannot be replayed for anyone else, and the memory is only as lucid as the person capturing it. But can a memory be like a play, where the proscenium calls for the suspension of disbelief anyway? Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theater Company seems to think so, or at least makes a case (with amazing success) that a play can represent both reality and a memory at the same time. Chekhov Lizardbrain is a detailed blueprint of the paranoia stemming from the question that, if the memories that have comprised a life are what makes a man and those memories are skewed or destroyed, does that man still exist?

The memories in question belong to Dimitri Dimitrovich (played by a totally schizoid James Sugg, who won an Obie for the role when it was performed in Philadelphia), a human collage suffering from varying degrees of mental illness. He moves across the stage looking at his feet and wringing his hands, alternately addressing the audience with presence and strength and then devolving into mumbled murmurs, grunts and stutters. Dimitri's alter ego, the aptly named Chekhov Lizardbrain, acts as master of ceremonies, setting up the action in the "menagerie of human possibility." His ice cold voice of reason inside Dimitri's head solidifies the sense that one is following a carefully controlled trajectory into the cerebral environment of a neurologically crippled man. Sugg's ability to switch between the two characters is flawless; from Dimitri's whiny Rain Man-esque chatter, and the deep, chin tucked in, reptile-like rumble of Chekhov Lizardbrain (one expects a large tongue to dart from Sugg's mouth at any moment, as his angled posture and twitching fingers channel the slow and staccato movements of an iguana), it becomes hard to tell if they are actually being played by the same actor. Essentially, Dimitri is afraid of his memories—"Your memories are out to get you Dimitri…" Lizardbrain says—and it seems that without the help of Lizardbrain he has no hope of making sense of them or assembling them into a discernible order. There are delightful moments when Chekhov Lizardbrain won't appear and Dimitri is left to fend for himself. At such moments his memories take on the form of a Victorian-era Russian melodrama, and the other players dress up in top hats, white long-johns and fake curly mustaches.

These other players, the three brothers selling the house, are no less talented in their interpretations of Dimitri's memory. Nikolai (played by Dito van Reigersberg, a dead ringer for Freddy Mercury) moves about the stage with an eloquent and refined confidence, gently urging Dimitri this way and that, furthering the notion that he has lost control of his memories and they in turn have gained control of him. A dark purple cave behind the red curtain at the back of the stage (resembling a reptiles gullet and spelunker's paradise simultaneously) becomes the space from which the characters and memories emerge then disappear into again. Dimitri is pushed into the cave by his memories and he becomes lost in his own mind, calling out into the darkness for Chekhov Lizardbrain to save him. When Chekhov Lizardbrain does appear, he calms everything down, in his deadpan, droll voice, and the audience is given a glimpse into what actually has occurred. The contrast between the fin de sciècle costumes (a definite nod, amongst others, to the play’s namesake) with rowdy Russian dancing and romping, and the contemporary moment in the lives of the three brothers as their mother dies and they must sell their childhood home, articulates compellingly the notion that memory is inconsistent and unreliable, especially in the hands of a man like Dimitri. He is utterly alone and begins to conflate the brothers' grief with his own memories of childhood—essentially stealing their memories for his own. At the end of the play one is uncertain if Dimitri actually knew the brothers in their youth, or if he has merely recreated his memory to represent it as such. Can memories be owned, like a house?

The allegorical representation of memory as the house becomes the clearest way of categorizing what is happening before us. Dimitri has no memory of his own and so wishes to purchase the house and, in so doing, the memories that accompany it. In a bizarre way Chekhov Lizardbrain is Dimitri's only anchor to reality; without the MC in his mind, he is nothing. Like the celluloid of a film, without proper care and over time, memory can deteriorate and corrode. It is at this point, when our brains try to fill in the moth-eaten holes, that memory changes and continues to change until we've either created a fantasy world of imagined happiness, or a nightmare of unending misunderstanding. Despite Dimitri's purchase of the house, he does not acquire the people who inhabited it, or their memories, and like his own original memories, the house falls into disrepair. Dimitri forgets whether he's cleaned the gutters, and is unable to turn the heat back on because he can't remember if he payed the bill. At this pace, he may soon cease to exist altogether. The Pig Iron company is aware of the fact that the only record of their own performance here is the memory of the audience, and much like Dimitri—who has been charged with the upkeep of the house—perhaps they have charged us with the memory of their production. One can't help but wonder if the players of Pig Iron think that we are up to the task.

(photo credit: Pig Iron Theater Company)