Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company

The Play's the Thing

By: - Aug 15, 2007

Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company - Image 1 Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company - Image 2 Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company - Image 3 Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company - Image 4 Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company - Image 5 Uncle Vanya at Barrington Stage Company

Uncle Vayna: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts
By Anton Chekhov (1899) Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Julianne Boyd; Sets, Karl Eigsti; Costumes, Elisabeth Flauto; Lighting, Scott Pinkey; Sound, Matthew M. Nelson; Production stage manager, Renne Lutz; Press, Charlie Siedenburg; Casting, Pat McCorkle, CSA/ Joe Lopick. Cast: In order of appearance: Patricia Connolly (Marina), Mark L. Montgomery (Dr. Astrov), Jack Gilpin (Vanya), Kenneth Tigar (Professor), Keira Naughton (Sonya), Robert Grossman (Telegin), Heidi Armnbruster (Yelena), Rob Holland (Hired Man/Watchman), Alaina Warren Zachary (Maria). The Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass. Box Office: 413 236 8888. August 9 to 26.

           There is a wide, gilded picture frame surrounding the stage in the center of which is suspended a kind of mottled but blank canvas. We are able to see rectangles of the set on its sides. There are a couple of chairs arranged in front of the tableau. Beginning, or actually preceding the action, a man emerges, steps over the frame and sits on a chair at the edge of the stage. It is Robert Grossman who superbly plays the minor role of the impoverished former landlord Telegin (Ilya Illyitch), or Waffle, as he is referred to based on the texture of his weathered face. He had formerly sold the farm to its current owners including the now deceased mother of Sonya, who inherited the property, and whose father, Professor Serebrayakov Aleksandr Vladimiorovich (Kenneth Tigar), has remarried to the much younger woman, Yelena.

          Telegin plays a guitar setting a kind of hypnotic, folkish spell just before the scrim rises and the bottom edge of the frame disappears. The set is initially a hybrid as a somber, generic  drawing room of an old farm house where tea is served from a samovar by the wonderfully warm and expressive Patricia Connolly as the old nurse Marina. Through the walls designer Karl Eigsti has suggested the forest abstractly. This references an important and far sighted theme of the ecology of the sacred and threatened presence of land and theories of reforestation on the part of Doctor Michail Lvovich Astrov played by Mark L. Montgomery.

            The compelling and galvanic music by Telegin will reappear at intervals when there is a change of scene or transition. It is one of the special delights of an ambitious but problematic production directed by Julianne Boyd. The artistic director of Barrington Stage is also an educator. She spoke to the audience both before and after the play. Inviting the audience, a few of whom took her up on it, to stay and engage in a dialogue with the cast which gradually emerged on the stage in a row of chairs. Although not directly stated, there was risk involved in presenting the high culture and complexities of  Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), an icon of modernist theatre, to a summer theatre audience. Good heavens. Barrington Stage has thrived by presenting main stage musicals such as this summer's revival of West Side Story followed by a broad farce Black Comedy.

            Perhaps Boyd's rationale for staging the challenging Uncle Vanya is that it was the prototype for the genre of comic tragedy. It is ironic that it was Chekhov who inspired Beth Henley to write Crimes of the Heart which is currently in production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. These concurrent productions offered the opportunity for ready comparisons. During this performance of Uncle Vanya, however, there were few laughs. But Boyd pointed to her teenaged sound man who was falling off his chair. Not that Boyd was presenting Uncle Vanya as a comedy but one of the difficulties of this production is that it didn't seem to find the right focus in an arc from comedy to tragedy.

           The translation of Paul Schmidt while contemporary, and, as Boyd stated, true to the original text,  it seemed  too vernacular and vulgar to match the period and somber ambiance of the dark and moody set of Eigsti. The contemporary speech, while easy on the ear of a current audience,  was not in sync with Eigsti's brooding,  blackened, varnished old paintings hung salon style in the Professor's bedroom, or the subdued lighting, with amber tones, by Scott Pinkney. It snapped my head back when Vanya burst out the expletive "Bull Shit." One doubts that is a precise translation of the original Russian. But Chekhov was a pioneer of naturalism in theatre and his internal muttering and ambiguity of plot and character provided a line through proto existentialism and on to the theatre of the absurd. Chekhov is a monument in the canon of modernism and I found myself more absorbed in the deconstruction of Chekhov, the pioneering dramatist, than feeling swept up in this production.

          This approach was exacerbated by preparation for this production, for me, the most anticipated of the season. Several months ago, I viewed the 1963, black and white video of what the cast members described as the "definitive" production of Uncle Vanya with Michael Redgrave as Vanya and Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr. Astrov. The production values of the film were wretched. It is just a filmed version of a play with the camera thrust in the faces of the actors and zilch for cinematography. It was a bit of theatre archaeology but, with patience, one could extract impressions of those iconic performances. That video became a paradigm for an expectation that these actors would update and refresh those prior interpretations. Theatre is a living entity and each generation deserves its definitive and timely productions. In that sense Boyd did not succeed in taking Vanya to a distinctly new place.

             I found myself just as vacillating and ambivalent in response to Jack Gilpin's awkward Uncle Vanya, as to the character as created by Chekhov. In a sense, the actor and director were so successful in conveying the world weary, wretchedness of Vanya that this created a barrier to becoming involved with his ennui. The fact that we have no clear way of responding to Vanya may be precisely what was unique about Chekhov. Arguably, for Vanya being precedes essence. Certainly he lacks the pre destination of a traditional, Christian moral compass.
         Most of the evening was neither here nor there with Vanya until he exploded in the botched attempt to murder the professor who has proposed to sell the property, the only means of support for Vanya and Sonya, and move to the city with enough money left over for a summer cottage in Finland. The outrageous plan motivates Vanya to want to murder the old man whom he has described all night as a fraud and fool. But this flailing about is too little and too late. As is his subdued retreat into a meek functionary at the end of the play sitting doing the books, side by side with his niece Sonya, who presents the famous coda of life after death as the only grim reward for a mundane and enervating existence.

                 Is it any wonder that one can almost hear the heavy, peasant boots of the Bolsheviks who were about to stamp into oblivion the very estates and enervating, petulant, self absorbed, impoverished gentry that are the focus of the play. Chekhov died young, in 1904, a year before the first and unsuccessful flash of revolution.

               Just like Pierre in Tolstoy's epic, War and Peace, Dr. Astrov is the visionary and reformer. He lusts after Yelena and is just as much hopelessly longed for by the plain and spinsterish Sonya. Chekhov sets up a cycle of lust and frustrations. Both Vanya and Astrov desire Yelena who claims to love the old professor but rather may just enjoy social status and a comfortable life. In a stunning scene meant to impress Ylena the Doctor shows her his study of the ecology of the region and the devastating impact of the erosion of the natural environment. He plants trees and watches them grow but it is a lost cause. His plans to renew the devastated forest is a metaphor for the peasant collapse that would initiate the Revolution which only resulted in exacerbating further and even more severe chaos and starvation. The Bolsheviks and Lenin's land reforms, followed by the collective farms under Stalin, would prove to be a greater disaster than the autocratic exploitation and neglect of the Czar and the White Russians. Dr. Astrov is the utopian, failed, frustrated, impotent surrogate for Chekhov who was, similarly, a country doctor who planted trees. Chekhov's emotional life was just as stilted and repressed as those of Vanya and Dr. Astrov. He married late but lived apart from his actress wife Olga Knipper who lost a child which he probably did not conceive. It is written that Chekhov preferred the comfort of brothels to the demands of affairs and relationships. It is his own dysfunctional character which inspired his neurotic staged characters.

            It is really the women who give a center to this at times confusing production. Yelena (Heidi Armbruster) is first presented as a bit of fluff. This is emphasized by a gorgeous period costume with great hat, gloves, and parasol in a champagne colored silk by Elizabeth Flauto.  Initially, she is nothing more than a beautiful object and focus of male desire. Her attraction is all in the eye.  She is more than the bumbling, drooling, cranky old professor deserves. Yelena seems like an all too easy prize for the competing predators.

                 But in the famous scene "Let's drink to friendship from a single glass" the stage comes alive as Sonya (Keira Naughton) and Ylena bond and air their issues. The chemistry is riveting and we see them with far greater depth and passion than similar exchanges between the men. We identify with the women while there is a struggle to respond when the men express themselves. Perhaps it is a matter of boy talk vs. girl talk. Why is it that girl talk gets straight to the heart while men beat around the bush, posture, pose and compete? For men it is about winning where women share their feelings and comfort each other. In Boyd's production, significantly under a female director, the girl's team blew away the boy's team. Arguably, Boyd directed these strong women with a level of insight and compassion that she didn't accomplish with the more daunting male characters. We really end up caring for Ylena and Sonya while Vanya and Dr. Astrov flail about all night without ever finding their target.

              Arguably, well, that's Chekhov; or how Boyd has chosen to stage it. All in all, a risky business and wicked ambitious.  Boyd and her company are so widely respected, she has delivered so many straight over the plate crowd pleasers, like West Side Story, that it was time for something different than a steady formula of musicals and comedies. With a permanent home now well established during its first full season in Pittsfield she is expanding the scope of her artistic vision. While this moves toward a broader and more experimental company let us hope that a bold strategy fill seats. On a Tuesday night there was a near to full house.