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PREVIEW: Lady with a Lap Dog (Fortune’s Fool)

Laurel Anderson (Mrs. Prozorov, Dasha, others), Joel Liestman (Dmitri), and Andrea Leap (Anna). Photo by Daniel Pinkerton.

“Translation,” Umberto Eco wrote, “is the art of failure.” The subtleties of translation may make seemingly small differences large and cause one thing to be mistaken for another.

She was walking alone – always wearing the same béret, and always with the same white dog. No one knew who she was, and every one called her simply “the lady with a lap dog.”

Next week, Fortune’s Fool Theater opens a new musical entitled The Lady with a Lap Dog. The work is adapted from the Anton Chekov short story Dama s Sobachkoy, more commonly known in English as The Lady with the Dog. The latter translation has a certain directness that Americans often associate with Russians and Russian literature, but also lacks a certain subtlety. A more literal Russian translation reads more along the lines of The Lady with a Doggie, which is cuter and also doesn’t sound quite as “high culture” as some people like to imagine Chekov.

High culture? Translation and marketing largely trade on what you want to be read into things. A 2001 play setting the story went by the moniker The Yalta Game, making it sound like a Cold War thriller, and a 2010 operatic adaptation went with the title The Lady with the Pet Dog, which makes the dog sound like something of a costar. Each of these titles shows different aspects of the original Russian and the story, with The Lady with a Lap Dog being a poetic compromise.

Title aside, the musical The Lady with a Lap Dog throws compromise out the window by turning the story into an 80-minute musical. Lap Dog‘s writing team is composed of a pair of Minneapolites: the book and lyrics were written by Daniel Pinkerton (Beaverdance!Grand Theft Autobiography, Hard Times) and the score composed by Robert Elhai (C, Twisted Apples, Persephone’s Sister). Those who fondly recall Elhai’s use of an accordion in Twisted Apples will be pleased to know that the score is arranged for piano, cello, and accordion.

The titular lap dog. Photo by Daniel Pinkerton.

The basic elements of Lap Dog‘s story should be familiar to anyone who’s read any 19th-century Russian literature: there’s an unhappy marriage, a secret adulterous affair, and not all of the neat finishing elements you might expect in a contemporaneous American piece. The intense longing that suffuses the narrative quickly made it one of Chekov’s most popular short stories. This poignant narrative also inspired an adapted retelling by Joyce Carol Oates – confusingly titled The Lady with the Pet Dog (1972) – that moves the action to the United States and retells it from the female protagonist’s point of view.

Fortune’s Fool bills their musical with the provocative question “What does it mean to be virtuous?” The Lady with a Lap Dog, they promise, will explore “balancing desire and responsibility, the transformative power of unselfish love, and what happens when you fall in love for the first time long after you were spoken for by another.”

The Lady with a Lap Dog premieres at Open Eye Figure Theatre on Friday, September 15 at 8 pm and plays through September 24.

Basil Considine