Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Uncle Vanya - Court House Theatre - Shaw Festival

"I see by your face that I am not interesting you."

Uncle Vanya
Moya O'Connell as Yelena Andreyevna in Uncle Vanya  ~ ~  Patrick McManus as Astrov and Neil Barclay as Ivan Petrovich (Vanya) in Uncle Vanya.
Photos by Emily Cooper

Uncle Vanya which just opened at Shaw's Court House Theatre is one of Chekhov's four prime plays (The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904)) written in the last few years of his life, the luminous literary quartet establishing him as one of the world's great playwrights. Chekhov's recurrent mood is one of melancholy derived from the parched themes of frustrated hope and wasted lives, all of his characters seemingly miserable, each in their own fashion.

Uncle Vanya's drama is quickly set in motion by the visit of Aleksandr Serebryakov (David Schurmann) an elderly, retired and pompous professor and his enchanting, much younger second wife, Yelena (Moya O'Connell) at the rural estate that helps sustain their urban lifestyle.

Two friends, Vanya, (Neil Barclay) brother of the professor's late first wife, and who has long managed the estate, and Astrov, (Patrick McManus) the local doctor, both fall under Yelena's enticing sexual spell, while bemoaning the ennui of their simple existence.

Sonya, (Marla McLean) the professor's daughter by his first wife, who has worked with Vanya to keep the estate going, suffers from the awareness of her contrasting plainness and her unreciprocated amorous feelings for Dr. Astrov.

A crisis occurs when the professor announces his intention to sell the estate, Vanya and Sonya's home and their raison d'être, with a view to investing the proceeds to achieve a greater income for himself and his wife.

The Court House's small, minimalist set (Sue LePage), lighting (Rebecca Picherback) and sound (Paul Sportelli) aids and abets the play's overall bleak, pessimistic outlook.

O'Connell is splendid as the bored-sick wife, Yelena, stuck with an aging academic partner who doesn't talk to her for a week at a time. She swings listlessly and languorously on a single rope and flounders upon a chair like a fish out of water, her eyes flashing alive only when McManus proposes a brief interlude in the woods. When Vanya confesses his love to her, utterly bored by him, she declares, "I'm going insane. I almost burst into tears twenty times today. There's something seriously wrong with this house."

McManus as Astrov carries the play as an exhausted, tree-hugging, vodka-drinking doctor (perhaps in homage to Chekhov himself) who cares for the often remote ills of others but cannot diagnose McLean's obvious infatuation as she excels in her stoic version of unrequited love. Astrov's passionate speeches about the destruction of the forest and the disappearance of birds and beasts is one of literature's first on ecological issues.

Barclay is superb in the title role of Vanya, hair askew, his voice thick with sarcasm, shrill with pain, his heart bursting with unrequited desire and anger with Schurmann's Serebryakov, provoking two wild gunshots at the end, but his overly plump stature does not lend itself readily to the suspension of disbelief required either for a plausible suitor of the seductive Yelena nor for a turn-of-the-century Russian farmer whom one assumes might be either lean or sinewy. One wonders about director Jackie Maxwell's casting in this instance.

The updated text by American playwright Annie Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of The Flick, and it's contemporary feel is refreshing but it is often difficult to psychologically juxtapose with the period Russian costumes.

Chekhov sets his play, subtitled 'Four Scenes from a Country Life', where most people feel comfortable, at home, but in this case, as with many domiciles, they are all trapped and isolated in boredom that is magnified by the sluggish movement of time as they talk grandly to one another, but nobody listens. Each reminds one another of their past, their failings and their present struggles. Astrov laments not being able to love anyone, but his adoring Sonya is not tuned in. He sums up the situation by labeling everyone including himself as a "creep."

As with all Chekhov plays, the unhappiness is laced with humour albeit the dark variety.

Uncle Vanya The running time is 2.5 hours including one intermission. Written by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Annie Baker. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Until September 11 at the Court House Theatre, 26 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake. or 905-468-2172.

As usual, the play's program is full of interesting and enriching material, reproduced below -

"There's something seriously wrong with this house"
by Ann Saddlemyer

"I hear that there are several dramas extant by Whatshisname (Tchekhoff, or something like that - the late Russian novelist)", Shaw suggested in 1905 when the experimental Stage Society was seeking new playwrights. But he would not see any of Anton Chekhov's plays produced in London for almost a decade, when Uncle Vanya affected him so strongly that he confessed, "when I hear a play of Chekhov's, I want to tear my own up", and to another friend, "everything we write in England seems sawdust after Chekhov". No wonder that Heartbreak House (published in 1919) was subtitled "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes", Shaw's introduction claiming kinship with "these intensely Russian plays [that] fitted all the country houses in Europe in which the pleasures of music, art, literature and the theatre had supplanted hunting, shooting, fishing, flirting, eating and drinking. The same nice people, the same utter futility".

Where Shaw promised a Fantasia, Chekhov bluntly subtitled his play "Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts". For unlike Shaw, Anton Chekhov refused to supply any answers, advising a fellow playwright, "You mix up two ideas: the solution of the problem and a correct presentation of the problem. Only the latter is obligatory for the artist." And of his characters, all of whom deserve sympathy, "Let the jury pass judgment on them; it is my business solely to show them as they are". But he always knew what he wanted: "A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are - not on stilts ... Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life".

To ensure this topicality, he occasionally introduced comments and names that the audience would recognize: Telegin expresses admiration with the hackneyed phrase, "It was a scene worthy of Aivazovsky!" referring to the elderly Romantic painter who specialized in enormous seascapes and battle scenes; Serebryakov's clumsy joke about the arrival of the inspector general is a direct reference to a popular farce by Gogol which mocks Russian bureaucracy; and no Russian audience could mistake that Vanya's mishandling of a loaded gun is a sly reference to the suicide that closes The Seagull, the play that had recently ensured Chekhov's success. Even the map of Africa uselessly hanging on Vanya's bedroom wall is in striking contrast to the colourful drawings of forest and animal life that emphasize Astrov's distress over the destruction of nature, only one of many reminders that edge the play into our contemporary world.

Like Shaw's, Chekhov's plays are shot through with musicality, arias and soliloquies, haphazard duets (though nobody else appears to listen) punctuated by silence, pauses, and stillness. But where the Irish playwright reached for the grandeur of a full choric outbreak followed by laughter and excitement, his Russian counterpart ends with quiet lyricism and painful heartbreaking awareness - the sound of a guitar, the tapping of the watchman's stick, distant harness bells, rather than flute or trombone. When an apparently melodramatic outbreak threatens, tea in the samovar has gone cold, two gunshots go astray, a kiss is too late, love is unreturned, a pencil and vial of morphine are stolen, nothing is what it used to be, yet everything is the same. Nobody is physically hurt, but all are damaged by hopelessness, waste, boredom and suffocation, an awareness of what might have been mixed with the reality of what has been, is now, and shall be.

In this timeless play small things happen, the action moves from out-of-doors through the sitting-room to an inner office/bedroom, but the subtle changes are within, the atmosphere and mood changing with each entry and exit, the characters mostly unaware of what transpires around them, "grey spots" as Yelena perceptively observes, describing herself "like a minor character in a play". Only she, whose entry is the catalyst for the ensuing turmoil, voices what most of them deliberately ignore, that "There's something seriously wrong with this house".

There is laughter, too. "Chekhov's books are sad books for humorous people," wrote the novelist Nabokov; "things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up". There are few discerning exchanges, but the dialogue is sprinkled with comic commentary, even while the characters mourn. And so the old Nanny pines for "the Christian way" when dinner (with noodles) was served at noon; Astrov is startled by her ready admission that he is no longer young or handsome; "Waffles", the fiercely positive, pockmarked live-in neighbour, preaches unlikely principles, unaware of the irony of his own personal situation; Vanya's mother retreats into thoughtless worship of ideas and resolutely ignores the reality about her; her hypochondriac unenlightened son-in-law pompously longs for the academic honours he thinks his aesthetic tracts deserve; her son anguishes over lost opportunities of love and work, then retracts his temporary gesture of independence; and the once eager visionary doctor walks away. "Things have gone totally haywire." Only the two young women are fully aware of what they will never have and realize that the only solution left is to endure.

This is the tragicomedy of life, observed by a man who remained true to his first calling as a medical doctor, once insisting that medicine was his lawful wedded wife, and literature his mistress. For Chekhov became a playwright almost incidentally: struggling to support his family while putting himself through medical school in Moscow, he began by writing short stories, more than 600, pouring them out for payment, then gradually writing brief vaudeville plays he called "Jests", some more serious novellas, finally moving to the four-act dramas. Although an early version of this play, called The Wood Demon after Astrov's passion and dedication to preserving the forests, was produced in 1889 (with a cast of two dozen, a suicide and a happy ending), the revised and much pared down Uncle Vanya did not reach the stage until ten years later.

Even then the production had a rocky start, for after several disastrous experiences with his earlier works Chekhov had first offered the script to the State Maly Theatre, whose academic committee demanded considerable cuts, taking umbrage especially at the insult of anyone attacking a university professor. When Uncle Vanya was finally produced in 1899 by the recently established Moscow Art Theatre, directed by co-founder Nemirovich-Danchenko with his handsome colleague Stanislavski as the unhappy and frustrated Doctor Astrov, Chekhov was too ill to attend. Even then, the production was boycotted by Moscow University because of his treatment of academics. In turn, Chekhov did not suffer fools gladly; once asked how to perform a particular character, his reply was simply, "as well as possible".

The Seagull had finally achieved a successful, polished and unified performance by the Moscow Art Theatre just a year before Uncle Vanya in 1899. More plays followed before Chekhov's early death of tuberculosis at forty-four in 1904: The Three Sisters in 1901 and The Cherry Orchard, completed in 1903 and produced, again by the Moscow Art Theatre, the year he died. Although occasionally referring obliquely to how a character should be performed, again Chekhov was too ill to be present. But as he himself insisted, "It is all written down".

Director's Notes
by Jackie Maxwell

Knowing I was planning my final season as Artistic Director of The Shaw, it became very important to me to direct something that would celebrate the strength of our acting ensemble while testing my own mettle as a director. It did not take long to come up with a play by Chekhov - what other playwright demands so much from, and hence brilliantly showcases, a group of actors, while pushing a director to both call on all her skills but be brave enough to go 'mapless' in rehearsal.

It was then a short, swift step to choose Uncle Vanya. I first saw this play while still at university in Manchester, England. A new theatre had just been built inside an old linen exchange - a contemporary theatre in the round where, if you lined up for several hours on a Saturday morning, you could buy a spot and a cushion for sop and sit on the floor in front of the front row, basically on the stage itself. Any discomfort I felt disappeared within minutes. I sat as if suspended throughout the performance and staggered out into the night knowing that my idea of theatre had been changed forever.

Witnessing the amazing shape-shifter that is Chekhov, I had experienced what so many have since his fractured worlds first appeared on the stage. I had seen a seemingly foreign world perfectly capture the ineffable sense of powerlessness, yearning and desire that this restless 20-year-old was feeling while also recognizing a theatre that eschewed the imposition of 'closure', cause and effect, logic - what liberation and oh how tantalizingly difficult!

I am now, of course, no longer a young wannabe artist but within minutes of walking into rehearsals here with a glorious cast and creative team, I started to feel that recognition all over again. This time a sense that the play now expresses and questions so much of what I have learnt in life and in the theatre and that it in fact means more to me now. Did I change or was Chekhov just ahead, waiting?

And so, with Annie Baker's luminous adaptation which echoes perfectly the nuance of contemporary conversation while keeping us firmly in Chekhov's world; some of his short stories on a table nearby to read aloud when we need to hear more of his voice; and as much honesty, generosity and bravery that a group of trusting people can engender, we are ready to offer you our Uncle Vanya - I do hope that it will also become yours ...

As a postscript, I would like to send a heartfelt thanks to Harveen Sandhu, whose contributions to the early weeks of rehearsal still resonate in this production.

The Author

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was born in a port town in the Crimea, the grandson of a serf. When his father's business failed, the family moved to Moscow where Chekhov enrolled in medical school. While still a student he helped to support his family by selling humorous stories to magazines. His first collection of stories was published in 1884, the year he graduated from university. In later years, he would describe medicine as his lawful wife, and literature as his mistress: when he grew tired of one, he once told his publisher, he would spend the night with the other.

Soon Chekhov began writing more serious works in addition to the humorous stories for which he was already well known. He also tried his hand at stage plays, with such serious full-length works as Ivanov (1887) and The Wood Demon (1889, later rewritten as Uncle Vanya). Although these met with little success, at the same time he wrote some one-act comedies that were immediately popular, including The Proposal and The Bear (both 1888). This last play, Chekhov joked, should have been entitled The Milk Cow, as it produced more income than any of his other writings.

In the last few years of his life, Chekhov wrote four plays that established him as one of history's greatest playwrights: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). All four were produced by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko at the Moscow Art Theatre, and all featured Olga Knipper in leading roles. Knipper and Chekhov were married in 1901, and Chekhov died three years later. Because of his emphasis on subtext - what characters are thinking but not necessarily saying - he has had an enormous influence on how plays have been written, acted and produced in the past hundred years.

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