Jul 31, 2012

My Three Uncles

Blanchett and McElhinny in the Sydney Theatre Company production; photo by Lisa Tomasetti

So I've now seen three Uncle Vanyas in as many months. Which takes the gold? If you count length of run as a measure of success, Soho Rep's Annie Baker/Sam Gold version, which has been extended through the end of August, is the clear winner. On the other hand, if you count how far a production has traveled, then the Sydney Theatre Company production, recently in town as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, clearly takes the prize. Target Margin's odd meta-take, which I saw in May, would win only in the first-out-of-the-gate category.

I should preface remarks about my own response to this triptych by saying that while Chekhov's rueful comedy may be my favorite play, as I've mentioned before, and though I've aired my dissatisfaction with the Soho Rep production, I honestly don't feel like I have a dog in the how-Chekhov-should-be-done derby: I get what my colleagues David Cote and Jason Zinoman are saying—roughly speaking, the argument is whether Chekhov's plays are nuanced, layered dramas of everyday disappointment or rip-roaring Russian comedies of passion and excess—but at the risk of copping out of the argument, I'll just say that I've seen enough productions of his plays to be an agnostic on the question. If I take anything away from these three wildly various Vanyas, not to mention the furious, punk-rock Seagull I saw in Moscow in April (which would give purists of any camp conniptions), it is that Chekhov's plays are not fragile, delicate hothouse flowers; they can take, and deserve, a wide range of interpretations.

In fact, what I think has been overlooked in the discussion of this recent spate of Vanyas, and in particular, in comparisons between the Baker/Gold version and the Sydney version (directed by Tamás Ascher from an adaptation by Andrew Upton), is that neither of these two is a stuffy, traditional samovar-and-cravats approach. Both strive for a kind of faithfulness to the text, certainly, but one is set at a vaguely 1940s, possibly-Australian outpost, while the other is set in a kind of casual-contemporary attic limbo. Neither is "traditional," as was the one I was part of in L.A. years ago.

But yes, these two can stand in as case studies for either side of the century-old argument about whether Chekhov's plays are primarily comedies or dramas, ruminative or raucous (while Target Margin's made its own modest case for deconstruction/experimentation). Again, that we have this debate at all signifies to me that the answer is, of course, they are both. They are capacious plays with both grand architecture and fine filigrees; they can be played broad and played tiny. I can think of no better argument for remaining open to interpretation than the Malle/Gregory film of the Mamet adaptation, Vanya on 42nd Street, which makes a quiet, no-frills case for both the humor and the pathos; it gets the rumination and fine-grained behavioral observation without losing the larger shape of the piece.

And that's, finally, what I responded to most in the Ascher/Upton production, apart from some of its undeniable pleasures (which would include, yes, Cate Blanchett's deliberate yet disarmingly messy take on Yelena, as well as Richard Roxburgh's angry-turned-catatonic-clown Vanya): that it revealed the shape of the play as much as its component parts. I can imagine, in theory, the value of being so immersed in the play that you can't see or feel its edges, and I think that's what the Baker/Gold version aspired to (and seemed to achieve, I should hasten to add, for the large majority of critics); and it's possible that some of the problems I had with the Baker/Gold version were simply a matter of the technical difficulties I alluded to here.

But I do think that discerning or guessing at a play's larger shape and movement while remaining alive to each moment as it happens is not only part of the satisfaction of theater, which is both a performative and literary art; it is also very close to life as it's experienced. We don't invariably live in the moment, and we don't experience life as simply a series of events, unless we have a serious dissociative disorder; we make narrative, we infer and/or impose meanings on events, we plan and perform rituals and routines, we daydream. One of the joys of a play is that it reflects these experiences within a dramatic shape, and the unique joy of Chekhov is that he seems to have found ways to conjure these experiences more directly, without shaping his plays into rigid plot forms. But they do have shapes and rhythms, and it was clear from the moment Sandy Gore's Maria Vasilyevna blew in to pick a fight with any takers (Roxburgh's Vanya being only her most obvious target) that Ascher's production crucially understood the play as a series of arguments between bored, dissatisfied people—arguments some were spoiling for, some were at pains to avoid, and still others didn't even realize they were in.

This conflict-driven interpretation fired the whole evening, even the scenes of ostensible comity, as in the risky choice to play the Sonya/Yelena reconciliation as a giggly, vodka-fueled slumber party (a bridge too far for me, actually, and a bad sign for Hayley McElhinney's Sonya, who was far too much the needy, grabby child for my taste; if you wanted to point to a casualty of Ascher's high-pitched approach, it would be his Sonya, though she rallied by the end).

Ultimately, my reaction to the Sydney Vanya was closest to Scott Brown's: bracing but not definitive, with occasional and forgivable lapses of taste. I liked Zinoman's tart observation that "an Uncle Vanya with no trace of vulgarity betrays the work," though this is hardly a deficiency of the Baker/Gold version, which envisions the Vanya/Astrov drunk scene as a fratty, pants-optional romp; that production's problem isn't too much reverence or decorum, by any stretch. And though I ended up responding more to the Upton/Ascher version than to those of Baker/Gold and Target Margin, I'm heartened enough by this outbreak of diverging Chekhovs in New York to suggest that, far from feeling glutted, my appetite is only whetted for more, and not just merrier, productions.


Jason Zinoman said...

Thanks for weighing in and framing this whole fun debate so nicely. One clarification though: I do not think Chekhov must be done as comedies and am actually on the same page as Cote and Brantley on this point. As i wrote in my review of Ascher's Ivanov...

"Done properly, Chekhov shows it all, the ridiculous and the solemn, the soulful and the sexy, the discreet and, occasionally, the naked. Or, as he once put it: “Let everything on the stage be just as complicated and at the same time just as simple as it is in life.”

In other words, my argument is that Chekhov's complexity requires that productions do not make a simple choice between comedy and tragedy. And i don't think this Vanya does. What's important is that the stakes are high and the subtext explored. It's an argument in short against smothering Chekhov in moody style.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Fair enough. And yes, it's probably true that the nouns "comedy" and "drama" are way too reductive for both your and Cote's arguments. I see that I've called VANYA a "rueful comedy" myself, but don't hold me to that. Taxonomies and genres are crude tools, particularly with the greatest works.

Esther said...

I saw the Sydney Theatre Company production. It was my first Uncle Vanya, my first Chekhov play. It was a mixed experience.

I was toward the back of the orchestra at City Center and I had trouble hearing during Act I. Also, I wanted to go in cold so I didn't read the synopsis in the program. That was a mistake.

But Act II was much more satisfying. I could hear better and I'd read the program so I knew who the characters were and their relationships to each other.

I was especially moved by Richard Roxburgh and Hayley McElhinney. They were heart-wrenching, to the point where the attempts at interjecting humor seemed inappropriate.

I like dark comedy. I really enjoyed John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, for example.

But this was different. There was nothing funny about their plight, about the way they felt unappreciated and unloved.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Esther, your comment brings up the point that neither of these two VANYAs would make an ideal intro to the play. I too saw the Sydney production from the nosebleeds and it took me a while to adjust my ear; I missed a few lines but luckily I know the play well enough to follow it. The Baker/Gold version is much clearer, admittedly, though I'd argue there's a lot of flavor missing there. Either way, I'd recommend Charles McNulty's excellent roundup about the two of them: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-anton-chekhov-uncle-vanya-notebook-20120805,0,1270993.story