Family Affairs

Four Funny Families is an ambitious and intellectually high-spirited interweaving of four plays by Anton Chekhov—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and Cherry Orchard—into a single film. It is also the collaborative creation of the family of Dr. Vera Zubarev Gr’94, lecturer in Slavic languages at Penn. Zubarev wrote the script, directed the film, and played several characters, while her husband, Vadim, served as producer, composer, actor, technical adviser, and sound editor. Their son, Michael, handled the cinematography and editing duties, as well as some acting.

By Vera Zubarev, Faculty.

The idea was to present all four plays as a cycle in a way that would reveal basic parallels among Chekhov’s comic masterpieces, and to do so in a postmodern style that would capture the original spirit of Chekhov’s humor—which, according to Zubarev, was intended to be more farcical than it is usually presented. (Her doctoral dissertation at Penn analyzed Chekhov’s “vision of the genre” of those four plays, and her books include A Systems Approach to Literature: Mythopoetics of Chekhov’s Four Major Plays.) The plot revolves around four families living under the same roof in their jointly owned furniture store, which is divided into four sections—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and Cherry Orchard. When the families throw a party, the fault lines are exposed.

At a screening at Temple University in May, Zubarev said that when she first shared her vision of the film with her family, her husband’s response was: “Interesting idea, but it’s difficult enough to understand what’s going on in one Chekhov play.” It was a valid concern, as the many-layered plot of Four Funny Families sometimes eluded this viewer. Certain cinematographic techniques—such as the occasional use of a divided screen with four different scenes running simultaneously—added to the sense of emotionally detached experimentalism. Depending on your outlook, that postmodern sensibility either undermines or enhances the gentle irony behind the pseudo-philosophy and pretentious utterances of some of Chekhov’s characters.

But the film contains many clever, wry, and unique touches—during one seduction scene, for example, the camera lingers on a gaping hole in the male character’s sock—and the acting ranged from competent to highly professional. (Some 30 actors from Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, Canada, and Ukraine took part.)

Over the summer, Four Funny Families was selected by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office’s Fresh Frames program, and was screened at the Prince Music Theater; it was also shown in October at the Wilmington (Del.) Independent Film Festival.

Those interested in learning more about the film can visit (—S.H.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/02/03


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