Cry uncle

Collected Works' Vanya dissolves into chaos

The early plays of Anton Chekhov were given such a cool reception by late-19th-century Russian theatergoers that the poor bastard almost quit the biz to devote all his energies to family doctoring, the profession for which he was trained. Russian theatergoers were accustomed to watching actors paint their faces with sorrow and joy in thick strokes of clown makeup, whereas Chekhov's scripts were crisp and subtle, requiring characters to telegraph emotions with their eyes, bodies, and hands while speaking more about emotion than showing it.

There are, to be sure, Chekhovian outbursts, but they seem erratic--more like sightings of passion than passion itself. To hold the audience, a Chekhov performer must somehow relay little hints that this turmoil is lurking just beneath the surface of decorum, whether it be that of the idle intellectual or the humble laborer.

Uncle Vanya was one of Chekhov's first successes, coming after a psychologically innovative Moscow Art Theatre restaged his earlier flop The Seagull in a way that was relevant to the educated Russian. Making Chekhov relevant 100 years later to American theatergoers hasn't been nearly as difficult. We're used to restraint and repression being not just springboards for dramatic conflict, but tasty conflicts all by their lonesome. Yet theater companies aren't completely out of the cherry orchard when they decide to mount Chekhov, as Collected Works has done with a new adaptation that director Tim Hystad calls Vanya. For even with their interludes of homicidal rage and despair, long passages from this legendarily economical Old Russian playwright can be played as social comedy. Hell, with decisive enough comic talents behind the project to veer the play's assignations into semi-farce, even the sorrowful bits that follow can feel like hopeful exhalations. That's the Chekhovian peril: locate the precise nature of the playwright's heartbeat, and express it. Is it skipping with joy or anxiety? Pounding with anger, ardor, or anguish?

The heartbeat seems to be missing altogether from the first act of Collected Works' Vanya, and follows such a jagged course down the chart of the second act, you hope the stage manager will distribute nitroglycerin pills backstage promptly after curtain call. This Vanya is a mess of inconsistent, unpredictable performances and a plodding pace that traps Chekhov, the actors, and the audience in a space where laughter is impossible and even breathing is difficult. A director could certainly make a case for a morbid, dolorous Uncle Vanya, though it would be done at the expense of Chekhov's wryness. But the grimness of this Vanya has more to do with opportunities missed, emotion misplaced, and an ensemble let loose like a sackful of kittens to scurry into their own corners of the stage. In some scenes, the actors seem to be sniffing around in different directions, following a scent we never catch.

The title character is one of the most memorably pitiful, self-loathing creations ever to shamble across the world stage. Vanya (as played here by Ted Grubke) is 47, unmarried, and bitter as a kumquat. His quickness to envy seems to confirm that he believes in luck: What else can explain the success of people he dislikes? As the play dawns, it's obvious he dislikes almost everyone: He's spent his life tending a decaying estate on dying Russian land with his niece Sonya (Elizabeth Ware). And then his fatuous, hypochondriac brother-in-law, Professor Serebreokov (David Ellis), a celebrated scholar, returns to the estate with his much younger wife, Yelena (Kate McClaine), with plans to retire. Vanya must balance his hatred for Serebreokov, who gained control of the place when his sister died, with his lust for the beautiful, if ultimately superficial, Yelena.

She, meanwhile, is deeply unhappy with her grouchy, bossy husband, and finds herself nursing a lech for Dr. Astrov (Ice Mozrek), a charming, hard-drinking friend of the family who treats the unhealthy poor across the whole district. Dr. Astrov is also desired by Vanya's niece Sonya, who's grown disgusted with the modest gains of a life of virtue.

As you can imagine from these overlapping, cross-cutting relationships, a harmonious ensemble is absolutely essential to relaying the depth of the relationships, not to mention the themes about waste and economic resentment that presaged the Bolshevik uprising with frightening clarity. Generally speaking, Chekhov's characters are unhappy either because they're poor, hard-working, and unfulfilled, or because they're cultured, idle, and unfulfilled. Their relationships are attempts to relieve this unfulfillment, even if they can't grasp what's causing it.

Compared to contemporary theater, which is so often a series of insular monologues stitched together, Chekhov was a Swiss watchmaker--characters are perfectly synchronized springs, bolts, and wheels. But the cast members of Vanya rarely connect with each other, and sometimes the connections of certain actors with their own characters flicker and threaten to dim. Two performances represent extremes of opinion that float through our mind while watching Vanya: what could've been and what shouldn't be. Ted Grubke as Vanya belongs, disastrously, to the latter. He's not just way too young for the character, but weirdly young--almost adolescent--in his blustery, arrhythmic, exaggerated delivery. He is difficult to take seriously, and sometimes aggravating.

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