note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Paul Barstow
Chekhov, in my view, achieved the universal by focusing on the specific. The more closely we look at the faults and follies, the fears and fantasies and frustrations of his provincial Russians of a century ago, the more clearly we see them and, in them, ourselves.
The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre of Providence has just closed a good but seriously flawed production of UNCLE VANYA in the David Mamet "adaptation," directed by Anthony Estrella. I watched the final performance on May 21, with mixed responses.
The "black-box" S F-G auditorium had banks of seats on three sides of an open "stage." The back wall was lined with alcoves and passages, wonderfully suggesting the text's "This house! It's a labyrinth, that's what it is." The sparse furniture was worn and tacky, just right for a rambling Russian farm house. I thought this space will serve very well in place of the four different locales, one for each act, which Chekhov specified. Then I looked more closely at the props -- small details of the production scheme -- several of them wrong for the period and the milieu: a non-samovar, a Modern Library volume on the table, Bicycle playing-cards, etc. I felt a warning signal. Was this careless of deliberate?
Marina and Telegin wandered into the space and puttered, which I thought a nice introduction to the action. Then Vanya came out and sat to sleep in a chair I hadn't noticed because it was immediately adjacent to a row of seats for the audience. Except for his sloppy tracksuit Vanya was indistinguishable from his better-dressed seat-mate. That something systematic was at work here was confirmed when Telegin suddenly began a loud country-western rendition of "Hey, Good-Lookin,' What ya got cookin'?" Where and when is this "country estate"?
The atrocity accomplished and the audience sufficiently disoriented, Dr. Astrov and Marina can start the conversation which begins the play. It was time to notice the costumes. I judged they came neither from a designer's plan nor from a well-stocked warehouse but suggested, instead, blind choices from a thrift-shop. Only two eventually defined character. Serebryakov was appropriately dressed as an elegant dandy, and Sofya's denim overalls in Act IV could only be appropriate for a Midwestern corn field. Yelena, described as "wandering around, swaying from side to side, ready to drop from sheer laziness," strode briskly across the stage in boots, a handsome and thoroughly modern woman. Of course, clothes both enable and restrict movement, illustrate station, character, taste, etc. These garments so "carelessly" chosen invite or require postures and positions totally inappropriate for the era and the milieu. For example, for their crucial colloquy Sofya and Yelena sit on the table at center stage, legs up, enjoying a real pajama party.
On another design front, lights go up and down for "close-up" focus effects. I, at least, thought not of an intimate view but of someone's hand on a dimmer. I was not drawn closer to the scene but thrown out of it.
The physical and social reality depicted in Chekhov's text had been thrown to the winds, so the characters could have no roots in time or space or culture, only attributes, some text-based, some not. To my perception, the whim of director, designer or actor is the ruling force rather than the attempt to create a coherent performance of Chekhov's play. In this performance metier ensemble acting in a time-and-place world is difficult. The "characters" have no real 'given circumstances' to share.
The old nurse Marina (Bernice Bronson) and Vanya's mother, Mariya (Linda Monchik) carried their just weights deftly. The "Waffles" (Gary Lait Cummings) had a handsome, sensual face and lots of abrupt movement. The character's self-description was unchanged, but nobody bothered to make him look pock-marked. The rich and subtle mood music his guitar should supply was not attempted. Jim O'Brien's Dr. Astrov lacked the sexual charisma the role demands and the ardor of his conservation plans was pallid in an otherwise engaging performance. Contemporary actors seem to pay little attention to dialect skills these days, but this Vanya and his niece Sofya had accents which placed them thousands of miles apart. Chekhov's Sofya is not written as a gauche and lanky adolescent. Taryn DeVito, a hard-working and energetic young actress simply could not enter Sofya's world and brought neither dignity nor poetry to the great final moments of wistful hope and courage. Jeanine Kane was a handsome Yelena but, again, was a stranger to the modes and manners of Chekhov's meticulously created world. Nigel Gore, obviously a splendid actor, gave a powerful and moving performance of Vanya which had resonance and depth. But his Very English accent kept intruding an irrelevant dissonance. My personal favorite in the cast was Sam Babbitt playing a curiously sympathetic Serebryakov. What hell for such an elegant urban dandy to be exiled at this farm among these rude eccentrics! (I've played the role, myself, but never seen it done quite this way; I found the characterization exciting and well within the perimeters of Chekhov's text.
In short, after all this bother, to me, the challenge and the joy of acting is the chance to become a different person, to be transformed. The joy of the spectator is to observe and be drawn into a different world, to be transported. In my curmudgeonly view, directors designers and actors are obliged by their profession and should be trained in their craft to feel their way past the surface and into the substance of a dramatic text and then, to the best of their abilities and resources, faithfully to fulfill its demands. For Chekhov these are abundantly clear (and have a 100 year history to be called up and evoked). e.g. four scenes are not necessary to UNCLE VANYA but a framed visual world is. His characters can't be in two or more times and places at the same time without being drained of essence.
I have known and loved UNCLE VANYA for fifty-five years, since as an Oxford student I saw, several times, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson perform it at London's Old Vic. I have acted in the play and directed it twice and seen dozens of performances. I've even seen it at the Moscow Art Theatre in a somewhat fossilized but nonetheless radiant production of 1975.
I think the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre production was an honest and honorable one, and I salute the program of productions this daring and energetic company have done and have planned. My generation and our aesthetic are passing, but let us all be grateful that Chekhov's work survives and can triumph.