The Moving Company’s new show “The 4 Seasons” is not by Anton Chekhov but it’s influenced enough by the playwright to feel like a love letter to him.
“I think it will feel like that for us as we’re performing it. It’s such a beautiful world he makes,” says Steven Epp, who acts in the show and is on the company’s artistic staff with Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand.
Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies but, like them, “4 Seasons” is a plot-light drama that reveals how people respond to difficult times. Moving Company came out of the ashes of Theatre de la Jeune Lune and both companies sought the humor in tragedy and the drama in comedy.
What’s it about, exactly? Epp, Heidi Bakke and Joy Dolo play laborers in a present-day hotel in “4 Seasons,” but if you want to know more about a piece that Epp admits is “a hard one to describe,” you need to look at its roots.
1. Hotel stories
“We did a number of shows at Jeune Lune where we would just start from a space. ‘Yang Zen Froggs’ was, ‘OK, we need a social space. A cafe. Friendly people who know each other, or don’t, but the idea is that whatever comes in the door, you have to get a laugh every 30 seconds,’ ” recalls Epp.
When they began thinking of it last spring, “4 Seasons” was envisioned along class lines like “Downton Abbey,” featuring workers at the hotel as well as guests, but that idea gave way to spotlighting the cleaning crew in a drama-filled place that, despite the play’s title, is not part of the ritzy Four Seasons chain.
“I just love hotels. I like going into them. Not staying in them, but seeing the bars and the lobbies. There are always lots of stories, lots of people and journeys,” says Serrand, who cites Paris’ Hotel Lutetia, which has been a Nazi torture chamber and a hospital but recently reopened as a hotel after years of remodeling.
Closer to home, Hewing Hotel, a former warehouse, also has stories, including some from Epp, who worked in the building when Illusion Theater had a studio in it.
“It’s the idea of a space having a history. The stories, the life and memory that is contained there has always been a big thing for us,” says Epp.
2. Antonio Vivaldi
Chatting about a seasonal show led to Vivaldi’s familiar violin concertos “The Four Seasons.” Like Moving Company’s previous “Speechless,” music drives “4 Seasons,” which heeds the spring, summer, fall, winter order laid out by Vivaldi — with a final look ahead to spring, featuring Astor Piazzolla’s tango-driven spin on Vivaldi.
“It’s the idea of spring and will it ever come?” says Serrand. “So, instead of replaying Vivaldi, we hear it as a new thing.”
Written in the 1720s, Vivaldi’s compositions were among the earliest pieces of music created to tell stories, as he tried to capture, for instance, spring’s birdsong and winter’s frost. The composer depicts a world in the midst of change, also a theme of the Moving Company’s show.
3. Anton Chekhov
Jeune Lune staged Chekhov once, “The Seagull” in 2003. Moving Company would love to do more but the large casts make them too expensive. The Russian master is a great fit for the new piece, though, because he often checked in on characters over the course of several seasons.
“He started to give us a purpose for the show, not to be a Chekhov mashup but to mine the questions he was dealing with,” says Keepers.
Like Moving Company’s “Love’s Labours Lost,” which incorporated elements of every William Shakespeare play, their “4 Seasons” samples from Chekhov’s greatest hits — “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Seagull,” “The Three Sisters” and “Uncle Vanya” — as well as parts of two others and his letters.
“We’ve always been fascinated by Chekhov,” says Epp. “That social world of his plays, underneath it there is this sense that the world is on the verge of some major change that nobody is really aware of.”
Serrand thinks that makes “4 Seasons” a timely followup to last year’s “Speechless,” which also depicted humans struggling in a time of crisis.
“Chekhov always represents the moment before a revolution,” says Serrand. “We thought that’s probably the closest to what we are seeing in America now: something about to happen but we don’t quite know how.”
Epp began by culling and mixing lines from the Chekhov plays but “4 Seasons” won’t contain actual Chekhov dialogue.
“You’re in the mind or in the vernacular of that other creator. It’s like choosing your palette as a painter,” says Epp. “If somebody really knows the Chekhov plays, they’ll recognize things” — such as lines, spoken by Bakke, that recall Masha’s “I’m in mourning for my life” from “Seagull.”
“For us this is a way, even though we are doing a creation, to go back to Chekhov and see how beautifully written it is, how interesting the characters are, socially and poetically,” says Serrand. “That is something we miss a lot in theater: the poetic side.”
4. The Thing
Epp handled most of the language for “The 4 Seasons” but no playwright is credited and they don’t call it a play. Epp and Serrand joke that it’s “a thing.”
“It doesn’t function like a play, in the sense that ‘Speechless’ didn’t function like a play, although it had an arc to it and this does, too,” says Epp.
The hope is that it also is honest.
Says Serrand, “One of our preoccupations was that we’ve done so many styles: commedia dell’arte, buffoon, opera, whatever. What’s a new style for us? And we said: ‘Honesty. Just be honest.’ ”
“It doesn’t mean being realistic or psychological, whatever that is, in terms of an acting style,” says Epp.
“No. It’s not just hiding behind some tricks,” agrees Serrand. “If you speak to an audience intelligently, they will recognize what you’re doing.”
All three men say they’re searching for a pure way to connect with audiences.
“On ‘Speechless,’ we kept saying, ‘No, just keep it simpler. Don’t try too hard. [Stuff] happens to these people and we have to be open and naked and transparent,” says Epp.
“You have to let the thing unfold,” says Keepers. “You can’t force it to be what you think it is. Once you start to make it, it starts to reveal itself.”
Keepers was in on the creation of “4 Seasons” but is currently in “Noises Off” at the Guthrie. So, for the first time ever, he’ll view this Moving Company show not as a theatermaker but as part of the audience.
“I can surmise a lot about what it will be but I don’t really know,” says Keepers. “What a lot of people say about Moving Company work is that they don’t know what we’ll come up with, so I’ll be that audience member. I’m excited to see what they came up with.”