The Bear

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Matt Geiger

One night I saw the glint of light on broken glass, and I knew the moon was shining.

A burnt sienna-haired woman was draped in black. She stormed back and forth across a little room, sneering and yelling and rolling her eyes - raging and beautiful in the way only a furious woman can be. A man towered and lumbered around her, menacing and massive one moment, comical and infantile the next, powerful and afraid.

I sat a few feet away, sipping room temperature coffee from a white polystyrene cup, watching, nodding and laughing.  

I was spending the night in Egg Harbor before signing at a bookstore nearby the following day. I was eating marmalade in a store when I saw a poster on a wall. “The Bear,” it said over an image of a bearded, high-collared man screaming in the face of a woman holding up an angry hand that looked like it was holding an invisible, still-beating heart she had just ripped from the man’s chest. “Open Door Theater Company Presents: ‘The Bear,’ by Anton Chekhov, Hosted by Crescent Studios at the Top of the Hill Shops in Fish Creek.”

Chekhov used humor like a scalpel. He was also a doctor, so he could use a real scalpel as well. He was familiar with death in the way 19th Century doctors were. It was a time when the world of medicine had gotten around to naming most deadly diseases, but had not yet found their corresponding cures. He knew more than the average person about syphilis, but about the same amount as the average fish monger when it came to making it go away. It was a time when the most popular medicines included belladonna, a member of the deadly nightshade family that causes powerful hallucinations, headaches, blurred vision and loss of balance. Also opium, heroin’s great-grandmother. And if those didn’t work, there was always mercury, a deadly toxin doctors poured down their patients’ throats every chance they got, primarily because “quicksilver” sounds like it might have magical curative properties.

These people were like shivering, ice encrusted wanderers who’d come up with a hundred names for different types of deadly winter storms, but would not invent the coat or hat for another 15 years.

When you’re a great observer like Chekhov, and you see untreatable pain, suffering and anguish in the world around you, the only reasonable place to turn is humor. So Chekhov did, again and again. His characters argue, fight duels, their gods vanish, they die, and as you watch his plays, you chuckle, feel a little better about life, and you see the horror clearly, but also the warm mirth that miraculously occupies space somewhere inside all the anger in the world.

After watching “The Bear,” I stayed and chatted with the cast for a few minutes. Andrew James Kleidon-Linstrom played Smirnov. He was also artistic director. Victoria Kleidon-Linstrom, the executive director, played Popova. Both are graduates of Augsburg College’s Theater Arts program, and they recently founded Open Door Theater Company together. They’re also married in real life, and I’m sure there is special glee to be found in standing on stage calling your wife “pure crocodile,” or looking your husband in the eye and vowing: “You have no idea what a pleasure it will be for me to put a bullet through your thick head.”

In “The Bear,” Popova’s husband dies. She goes into mourning. After his death she finds a stash of lusty letters written to an assortment of women. Women who are not her. In response, she decides to answer his betrayal by angrily loving him and mourning his memory for the rest of her days.

“I promised I’d shut myself up here until the day I die, didn’t I?” says Popova at the play’s outset. “And I will. He’ll see how much I loved him…Oh, I know he treated me badly-I don’t have to tell you about it. He was mean and...and even unfaithful. But I intend to be faithful to the grave and show him what real love means.”

Her love and devotion are born purely out of spite. She wants to make a ghost suffer the pain of guilt, and she’s willing to do anything - even love - in order to get her revenge. It’s brilliant. Classic Chekhov. The thought of it makes me smile every time, because, well, that’s how most people are. Just look at the endless stream of arguments about god and guns and politics on social media. Everyone is steadfastly convinced they are doing the right thing, whether they are on the left or the right, but their motivation, when you strip away their bumper sticker slogans and self righteous sermons, is usually spite. They want to win, and they will go to any length to do it. They want to prove that their worldview - their religion or their liberalism or conservatism - is best, and can lead to the greatest happiness, and they try to prove their point by shouting to the world how miserable and aggrieved they are, making the rest of us miserable in the process.

There is a cure for this terrible affliction. The first step is to open your eyes and look around you. You’ll soon see things like a little poster for a one-act comedy play by a great Russian writer who died more than a century ago. Then you can drive to a little theater, where you watch people argue, and you realize that love can easily, instantly, transform into hate, but the same is also true in reverse. Love can grow out of any emotional soil. Humor - whether it was written in Russia in 1888 or Monday of this week in Wisconsin - is merely good realism. The two, like love and fury, are inexorably linked.

In “The Bear,” Popova meets a brutish man who says she owes him money. In their raging, one-act fight, in which names are called, chairs are broken, and pistols are brandished, they fall in love. Before this, Popova sat in cold silence, nurturing the ghost of her unfaithful husband. But in a nasty argument, full of life and love and hate, the ghost starves. He cannot survive in the presence of such humanity. He cannot last around such passion.

The cast told me that during times of great suffering and strife - such as the Great Depression - people tend to turn away from fantasy and escapism. They don’t want to forget about how tormented their lives are; they want to celebrate it. They turn to realism, where they find solace and hope. And in realism, I think they find comedy too.

The following day, as I sat at a little table and signed a few copies of my recent published book, a man approached and began speaking to me. His wife loves to read, he said.

“So do I,” I nodded.

But she is losing her vision, he said, and there is nothing the doctors can do about it. They know all about her illness, but they have no cure. The best they can do, he explained, is give her a drug commonly used to treat colon cancer, which has some small side effect that slightly slows the encroachment of her blindness.

I’ve heard the great writer Jorge Luis Borges talk in great detail about the process of going blind. I had always thought of it as a very slow death - a gradual darkening for which you were awake, like being buried alive while still aboveground. Borges said that’s not the case. He said black is actually one of the first colors you lose. The one that stays the longest, he said, is a pale yellow. Yellow? I thought. That’s the color of trilling finches and the crayon sun on a little girl’s art project. That’s the color of sunflowers. That’s the color of laughter. In the bookstore, the man said his wife was trying to read as many books as possible before her vision left her completely. It seemed like a pretty good opportunity to sell a copy of my book, but I’ve never really had that kind of entrepreneurial spirit. “Maybe don’t get mine,” I said. “It’s just a collection of 44 funny stories. The classics are back there somewhere.”

That afternoon, actors from Open Door Theater Company began preparing for another night’s performance. At the same time, a woman waited for her husband to return with a stack of books for to devour as her vision faded. Anton Chekhov’s skeletal remains lay under the ground. And a small-time writer sat in a bookstore looking out at the busy street outside, while a tall, lean man came into the bookstore and purchased a magazine called “Hustler.” He wasn’t interested in a collection of 44 funny stories, he said. He knew what he was there for. While he paid for his pornography, he tried to sell the clerk at the bookstore a “250-year-old” copy of “Swiss Family Robinson,” a book that had not yet been written 250 years ago. The store did not buy or sell used books, anyway, he learned. He didn’t have the book with him, but he heaped praise upon it, holding a plastic-wrapped smutty magazine in his hands as did so.

So the inconsequential author, the one sitting in the book store, who had been so sad about the reader losing her sight a few moments earlier, sat there and laughed.

Chekhov is credited with saying writers should never tell you the moon is shining. Instead, he said, they should show the glint of light on broken glass. Then, the reader won’t just know the moon is shining - they actually will see and feel its spectacular shimmer.

If you told me the world - this chaotic place full of violence and rage and bickering and blindness - is funny, I might not believe you. But if you showed me that scene, in a little bookstore on a Friday afternoon, I would laugh, and laugh, and know that you were right.


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