nytheatre.com review by Kelly McAllister
February 23, 2005
Anton Chekhov, as the program for the new rendition of Uncle Vanya from Volga Productions and The Open Book tells us, was a genius. He wrote characters and plays that could be played for both laughs and/or tears. He peopled his world with complex, funny, not-easy-to-pin-down human beings. There have been many different approaches to his work, varying wildly in style and intent. Some companies see his plays as comedies, bordering on slapstick. This is understandable, since Chekhov called most of his plays comedies. But there are also many productions of his plays that are played for tragedy. Some are long, turgid affairs, and others are magnificent evenings of theatre. In my opinion, there is no right way or wrong way to go after Chekhov’s plays—at least as far as the tragedy vs. comedy goes. However, there are always ways to muddy up said intentions; always ways to make a genius’s work seem less than it is—and sadly, that is what happens in this production of Vanya.
Uncle Vanya tells the story of a bunch of bored, burnt-out people with too much time on their hands. On an estate in the country owned by Professor Serebryakov, Vanya and his niece Sonya work and fritter their days away, contemplating fading dreams and unrequited love. When Serebryakov (Sonya’s father) and his new young wife Yelena show up, everything gets thrown into a state of disarray and confusion. As the residents of the mansion adjust to the new living conditions, everyone begins to question their position in life—both spiritually, and sexually. Sonya is in love with Astrov, the local doctor. Vanya is in love, or at least lust, with Yelena. Astrov, too, falls for Yelena—and Yelena seems to fall for Astrov, but can’t break out of her rigid social role as good wife to Serebryakov, a once important academic whose glory days have passed. Nobody is getting what they want or need in this world, and trouble ensues.
The show gets off to a rocky start, with blaring music, meant to set the mood, blasting out of the speakers. As the cast slowly enters, in a dirge-like procession, it becomes clear that this company is going for the more tragic aspects of Uncle Vanya. Everyone sits around, glumly speaking of their lives, taking long pauses to think about how tragic it all is. Some of the many pauses are over a minute long. I couldn’t tell if these breaks in the action of the play were meant to be comical, showing how seriously people take themselves; or whether they were intended to elicit sympathy for these sad people.
I was just about to give up all hope for the show when Peter Von Berg entered as Vanya. Von Berg is a shot in the arm, a light in the dark forest of this production. His Vanya is feisty and unpredictable, and his comic timing is perfect. He manages to capture both the comedy and tragedy of the character with ease. It was very confusing, however, to have such an animated performance onstage next to so many melodramatic ones. I found myself wishing that director Arnold Shvetsov had managed to infuse Von Berg’s vitality into the rest of the show. There are several good performances in the show besides Von Berg’s. As Yelena, Barbara Hammond exudes a fabulous mix of pent-up sexuality, regret, and just a hint of madness. As Sonya, Natia Dune is painfully shy—but her eyes are amazingly expressive.
I must admit that I left the show at intermission, for personal reasons. I am sure there are many fine moments in the second half of the show, but I'll bet that the fundamental problem that I observed in Act One continued; specifically, a lack of a sense of cohesion. Each character seems to come from a different world—and the director has not managed to bring them all together.
The translation, also by Shvetsov, seems to want to rarify every word Chekhov wrote—as if the words of a genius must be elevated and grand. Antonin Artaud, the actor/theorist/lunatic, once famously demanded that there be "no more masterpieces,” by which I believe he meant no more approaching art like something otherworldly, above most people, and/or snooty. If something is treated like a holy relic, it becomes difficult to integrate it into everyday life—it becomes stilted. Shvetsov’s translation and his direction, put Chekhov’s words so high on a pedestal that I lost any sense of connection to the play. Perhaps this production works better for purists and classicists, but for me, it fell flat. What a shame.