Churchill's famous description of Russia, "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," seems as apt regarding one of its native sons, Anton Chekhov. As with most "renaissance" men—a medical doctor, short story writer, playwright, environmentalist, and all-around insightful prophet—Chekhov's many levels of nested meaning are difficult to capture.
To complicate matters, effectively performing Chekhov is inextricably bound to acting style and genre, not just the Method and realism, which played an integral role in the successful introduction of this master storyteller's works to the world, but in the prime role that style and genre play in drawing out the humor in his plays; or, as Chekhov once said, "First of all, I'd get my patients in a laughing mood—and only then would I begin to treat them."
|Sonya (Elgin Kelly)|
with Eric Victor as her uncle, Vanya
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
When Chekhov's first plays were presented, the melodramatic style of the Russian stage was an impediment to their discovery (just as it was earlier for Gogol's work); it was only after the plays were reinterpreted a couple of years later by Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the two heads of the Moscow Art Theatre, that they gained widespread popularity. But this does not mean that the naturalistic style—which came into vogue with Chekhov, Ibsen, and (non-flickering) electric stage lighting—is the only approach to this material, as Vsevolod Meyerhold's 1926 expressionistic production of Gogol's The Inspector General showed, rediscovering surrealistic and dreamlike sequences after a century of photographic realism.
Given similar elements in Uncle Vanya, such as stream-of-consciousness, it's worth considering Chekhov in a different light, particularly because Chekhov himself argued for it with Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. The playwright was much more optimistic than the directors, calling for comedy rather than angst, which is so often the fallback position with his work. Or, as the good doctor says:
ASTROV. [Having shaken hands] Yes, go. [Thoughtfully] You seem to be sincere and good, and yet there's something strangely disquieting about your personality. No sooner did you arrive here with your husband than every one whom you found busy and actively creating something was forced to drop his work and give himself up for the whole summer to your husband's gout and yourself. You and he have infected us with your idleness. I've been swept off my feet; I've not put my hand to a thing for weeks, during which sickness has been running its course unchecked among the people, and the peasants have been pasturing their cattle in my woods and newly-planted forests. Go where you will, you and your husband will always carry destruction in your train. I'm joking of course, and yet I'm strangely sure that had you stayed here we should have been overtaken by the most immense devastation. I'd have gone to my ruin, and you -- you would not have prospered. So off with you! Finita la comedia!
In fact, with the current production of this classic at Germinal Stage Denver, we see the contemporary limitations of realism in communicating the artist's message. If we were take this production as our measure of Chekhov, we would agree with those who characterize his oeuvre as "theatre of mood"; but we are not of the mind to take Uncle Vanya as a slice-of-life, even though he characterized this play as "scenes from country life," for Chekhov's message and point-of-view extends well beyond a mirror of his times.
This is evident in the scene where Astrov (Terry Burnsed) and Velena (Lisa Mumpton) confess their love and desire for one another, which is played out in a hilarious and, dare we say it, farcical sequence; or, as we see in the lighthearted approach that Vanya (Eric Victor) takes toward his own disinfranchisement, romantic failures, boredom, and murderous intent.
|Lisa Mumpton as Velena|
and Terry Burnsed as Astrov
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
If only director Ed Baierlein's deft touch in these scenes were more noticeable throughout; though, it should be said that this was the third preview performance, so we very well may see a completely different play as it develops during the run, much like the initial staging at the Moscow Arts Theatre matured during its run in 1899, as the director and actors came to grips with playwright's complexity.
One of the keys to solving the tone of Uncle Vanya is the manner in which Sonya (Elgin Kelley) speaks to her uncle, Vanya, for example, when Vanya has stolen the morphine from Astrov:
SONYA. Give it back! Why do you want to frighten us? [Tenderly] Give it back, Uncle Vanya! My misfortune is perhaps even greater than yours, but I'm not plunged in despair. I endure my sorrow, and shall endure it until my life comes to a natural end. You must endure yours, too. [A pause] Give it back! [Kisses his hand] Dear, darling Uncle Vanya. Give it back! [She weeps] You are so good, I'm sure you'll have pity on us and give it back. You must endure your sorrow, Uncle Vanya; you must endure it.
And, at the conclusion ...
SONYA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, you and I shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile -- and -- we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONYA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven all shining with diamonds. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears with a handkerchief] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest! [The WATCHMAN'S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOYNITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest!
The funny thing is that they have all been resting the entire play. We never see them work, only complain about it. Boredom is hard work! Yet, Sonya copes despite her disappointments. How does she do this?
In Uncle Vanya, Chekhov's explication of the human heart, as well as his advocacy against environmental destruction and his criticisms of a complacent and insensitive bourgeoisie on the verge of a revolution that they refuse to see, are as compelling today as in the late 19th Century—but these facets would pack a greater punch here with a more consistently heightened acting style.
Germinal Stage Denver's Uncle Vanya runs through August 28th. 303-455-7108.