[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-UNCLE.html]


by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art
220 E. Chicago Avenue / (773) 753-4472
Through February 11, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 20, 2007

In the Court Theatre‘s production of “Uncle Vanya” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, one enters a world in which characters scurry on and off skittishly, appear and scatter as quickly as cockroaches surprised by a sudden overhead light in the middle of the night. Initial images and movements on the stark framework of the set (metal tubing, freestanding wooden staircases and cantilevered walkways and playing spaces) evoke modernist playwrights like Harold Pinter, rather than Chekhov’s languorous language and the dangerous emotional wars of the bored well to do in pre-Revolutionary rural Russia. Ah, the physical and emotional balance of this production never quite settles. In the end, there are some lovely performances in this always challenging play, within a modernist trapeze of a set that is lit with imagination and classically modernist (yet not original) verve, that never completely hangs together as a whole.

The set by first time set designer, full time architect Leigh Breslau is all edges and angles. The lighting by John Culbert inspires memories of Svoboda and streamlined Noel Coward interiors. And on top of this we have imposed, as my theatre companion said, “Richard Scarry Theatre” (author of “Busy Busy” books for toddlers), with a busy busy stage. The core challenge here is that this is not a play of action but is instead one of inaction. The textual silences need to be animated rather than the imagined bursts of energy represented here. I find this production visually arresting and actually quite to my aesthetic tastes, but the integration with text and authorial intent is not achieved. One lies on top of the other, and the words of Chekhov are nearly squashed as a result.

The overbearing conceit of the lovely and yet not fully incorporated physical and illuminated set defines this production. A few powerful images do last in memory. One of the lolling Vanya (Kevin Gudahl) on a suspended walkway, after the initial scurrying settles at the beginning of the play, one leg hanging over the surface’s edge. As an audience member, we enjoy a delicious discovery of this body, then uncertainly for several minutes after action begins whether or not this is a dead or napping character looming above the action. In another scene toward the end of the play, on the raised stage space that cuts a diagonal swatch from upstage left to downstage center, we have the “call them all together” pronouncement scene in which the professor enunciates his plan for family solvency. The entire family and group of servants are arrayed in this diagonal line, seated, as individual characters, not interacting with one another but facing straight ahead. And the professor, who has complained of gout and other ailments throughout the play’s action, is the only character upright, pacing. This is an arresting image of movement that works within the aesthetic established by the designers.

The object of Vanya’s affections Yelena (Chaon Cross) is gorgeous but has only two speeds – flirting or angry and sullen. Yelena needs more shades to animate the joy she has in discovering a bond with her stepdaughter Sonya (the delightful Elizabeth Ledo) or the compromised resolution she feels when returning to her professor husband Serebriakov (James Harms) after pulling back from the brink of a dalliance with the doctor Astrov (Timothy Edward Kane). When Vanya says to Yelena that she embodies inertia, we don’t believe it. There has been too much skittering about. She is not still enough. Genuine emotion and/or stage presence is provided by several performers including Elizabeth Ledo, Timothy Edward Kane, and Penny Slusher. The other characters lack the gravitas that will allow for pathos. Or perhaps they are all struggling with finding a consistent tone or balance.

The choice to do three soliloquies (by Vanya, Sonya, and Yelena) as stand up comedy routines complete with hand-held microphones is another example of challenging directorial choices. These moments bring a change of pace from the downcast delivery that characterizes most of the rest of the dialogue, and some genuine laughs but, again, for this observer these moments are not quite integrated with the whole. It’s not that the viewer needs a literal map to meaning tying words to metaphor, but the meaning to this viewer is entirely opaque, and sometimes misleading.

There are lovely moments that work, when the messy encumbrance of the conceptualization falls away and we were left with the words, in conversation. For example, Vanya to his niece Sonya at one point notes “When you don’t have a real life, you make do with dreams. It’s better than nothing.” In moments like these, we as an audience are allowed sparks of genuine emotion that find full flower when the performers can be still and resonate quietly.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 11, 2007)

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