Posted by: strugglesome | November 15, 2010

Say Uncle: The Lantern Theater’s Uncle Vanya

If the challenge of a Shakespeare production is getting the audience to understand what is being said, than the challenge of a Chekhov production is to get the audience to understand what isn’t being said. Because while the characters in Chekhov’s plays may be going on and on about working and trees and the future and the practicalities of existence, beneath the conversations lie the undercurrents of human emotion, the passions deferred and the unspoken needs which, when they bubble to the surface,are ruthlessly pushed back down again. In this way Chekhov’s plays are like swans in lakes (insert Tchaikovsky joke here), moving along with a deceptive serenity as underneath the surface the water churns, the reeds break and the fish flee in terror. Or at least, Chekhov’s plays should be like that, when they are played well, which anyone would admit is no easy task, they are. When they are played badly, they become every stereotype of Russian literature and drama, that is, unbearably long, tediously boring, and featuring annoying people with unpronounceable confusing names. And while it would be unfair to say that The Lantern Theater Company’s production of Uncle Vanya makes all of those mistakes, unfortunately the majority of the production does seem to find itself veering dangerously in that direction.

First we must consider the play itself, Uncle Vanya, which is a re-write of a piece that Chekhov had previously created in 1887 titled The Wood Demon.  Apart from being the most masculine of Chekhov’s four major plays (and the only one without a teacher), Uncle Vanya is perhaps the most referential, peppered with allusions to Chekhov’s contemporaries and preprocessors, mocking Tolstoy (who famously once said to Chekhov that “Shakespeare was a terrible writer but you are worse”), mentioning Ostrovsky, and glibly dropping Turgenev’s name. The last is especially tongue in cheek considering the fact that Uncle Vanya as a piece mirrors Turgenev’s A Month in the Country to an astonishing degree. Though this itself is not particularly strange when we consider the fact that all of Chekhov’s major works are subverting  then-traditional concepts of theater. What is, say,  The Cherry Orchard, for example, if not a mortgage melodrama turned upside down? Uncle Vanya itself wrecks havoc with dramatic arc, climaxing with a completely unsuccessful duel (Puskin’s Eugene Onegin it is not) and then leaving us hanging for an entire act as we watch a pathetic and abortive suicide attempt, only to finish with a pair of lonely people working on the estate accounts. It is, in its essence, a play about a loser, whose knowledge of himself as a loser is not enough to elevate him from his failures. After all, Chekhov’s characters never regret the things they’ve done, they regret the things they haven’t had the courage to do.

Played in a pale green living room/drawing-room combo type space designed by Meghan Jones, the set itself looked to be ripped directly from someone’s home, the frayed edged on either side of the space a tribute to Stanislavski’s slavish dictate that theater should be like peeking in on someone’s living room. A single samovar haunts stage left (a move that had my seat mate smirking, “I guess that makes it Russian”), and furniture is arranged and re-arranged to represent different rooms in the house.  The fact that the piece is played with audience on three of the four sides is a good if often-made choice, breaking the now-traditional single audience bank and forcing an intimacy between actor and spectator. However, director Kathryn MacMillan’s staging often has monologues and exchanges played with majority of the audience getting a view of the actors profiles and backs as they move in circles around the square playing space, depriving the viewers of a clear stage picture.

Above the house space hang a sparse collection of bare branches, which is frankly an extremely confusing design. First of all, the entire play takes place over the course of a month in the summer , wouldn’t the trees have leaves on them? And why would there be tree branches hanging over the living room, aren’t we to imagine a roof overhead? Is the estate really in that much trouble that Vanya and Sonia can’t afford to build a roof? Faulkner once called Chekhov the first true surrealist, and while it’s possible this production may have used these branches to reference this, nothing else about the piece really supports that. The music, product of sound designer Christopher Colucci, is equally jarring, reminding me of nothing so much as Hannukah tunes, which is odd, because from what I can remember from my time living in Moscow, Judaism remains extremely unpopular in the former Soviet-Union. Luckily, solid lighting design by Thom Weaver inspired no philosophical questions, nor did it remind me of uncomfortable conversations about my religion held in broken Russian, and Millie Hiibel’s costume design was largely strong as well, though why Sonia would be wearing outfits more appropriate in Tolstoy’s The Cossacks is anyone’s guess.

Sonia herself, played unevenly but often strongly by Melissa Lynch (who is, by the way, far too pretty to be calling herself plain. Why do pretty actresses always get cast as Sonia?) seemed to vary from act to act, faltering at the start of the play, bursting with energy and talent through the middle and breaking our hearts before the intermission, then diminishing somehow and finishing the play right back where she started. Lynch is joined by a rather limp Astrov (Charlie DelMarcelle, who, while charming enough to be likable, plays Astrov too causally and without a sense of true depth), and a strong Yelena (Pig Iron member Sarah Sanford whose performance is thoughtful and layered, if not bursting with vivacity). Serebryakov (David Howey) is appropriately pompous and Maria Vasilyevna (Ceal Phelan) supports the action well, but there is a general lack of inner life in this production, giving it an indifference which feels at odds with how high the stakes of the play really are. There is a dearth of subtext, and a causal air that renders the text repetitive and uninteresting, rather than charged with meaning. The sole exception of this is Peter Delaurier’s Vanya, which is excellent, dynamic and strong with hundreds of subtle levels and a constant consciousness of the world of the play that is exciting to watch. The only negative of this is that Delaurier’s supremely saturated and smart performance highlights what is lacking in the production, and the sharpness of his internal pacing draws attention to the almost sluggish rhythm of the piece itself.

One of the most poignant and authentic things about Chekhov’s work is the continual trope of things happening, big things like duels and suicides and admitting that you love someone who doesn’t love you back or whom you shouldn’t really be loving, and then life goes on, just the way it always has. Uncle Vanya portrays an interlude, a month in the lives of these unhappy people who live in a house where hope has died (Sonia’s deceased mother’s name was Vera, which is Russian for hope; Chekhov is nothing if not subtle). Visitors come, disrupt the lives and schedules of Sonia and Vanya, and then they leave, and time continues onward, stretching towards infinity. It is little wonder that the only Chekhov play permitted to be produced during the reign of the Soviet Union was The Cherry Orchard (with Trofimov as the voice of the proletariat), because it’s hard to believe in hope and change when all you see are things just staying the same. We are devastated by the people we see in Chekhovian tragicomedy, not in the least because we find ourselves reflected in their depths.  And if the Lantern Theater Company’s production doesn’t give us all we would like or expect from this work, it does leave us with a Vanya who grasps for life, even while he understands that life has past him by. Because what more is left to us but that? The task is as futile as it is necessary, and if you are sick of living, well, just think of the alternative.

The Lantern Theater Company’s production of Uncle Vanya runs until November 21st. Tickets are available here.

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Responses

  1. […] an extremely strong Chekhovian reference by Ms. Ruhl, given the Russian playwright’s love of metaphorical names). Leticia, bundle of joy that she is, is actually providing her mother with a great deal of […]


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