If I’d had a normal life, I could’ve been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky!” Funny, awkward explosions like that are rare but significant moments in Chekhov’s plays, which—as one spectator at the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley production of Uncle Vanya put it—seem to run on the rhythms of “the comedy of everyday life.”
The blend of comedy and tragedy, as director Stanley Spenger (who also plays Vanya) put it in his notes, links Chekhov to Pirandello and Beckett as a predecessor to the “Theatre of the Absurd.”
Even a generation ago, this analysis would have been met with blank stares by many theatergoers and theater folk themselves. Stanislavsky, whose Mos-cow Art Theatre gained its enduring reputation through premiering Chekhov’s new kind of drama—in which nothing seems to happen but everything is somehow communicated—canonized an interpretation, over the objections of the playwright, which emphasized the more pathetic, emotional aspects rather than the humor that conditions them. (Elia Kazan did something similar with the often Chaplinesque plays of Tennessee Williams.)
Chekhov’s characters are grotesques in something of the way Sherwood Anderson meant the term to be used. A commercially successful writer of short stories and humorous vaudeville sketches, Chekhov carried over the comic style innovatively into his longer plays, in which a character will even comment on one mood, act out another, then self-consciously comment on that, circling back into a spiral of repeated assertions and mannerisms fitted and refitted together, a real-life stylization of a comic or clown’s routine.
(In fact, V.S. Meyerhold, the great Soviet director, who said “the grotesque is the triumph of form over content” and who insisted that the poetry in Chekhov was in the rhythm of the lines, may have realized his notion of “attractions,” staging a play in units reminiscent of a circus or sideshow, partly through his understanding of Chekhov’s vaudevillian form.
Meyerhold initiated several Chekhov roles under Stanislavsky’s direction, was close to the playwright, directing his plays and corresponding with him before Chekhov’s death at 40. The playwright never realized his announced intention to write more stylized works.)
A rough synopsis of Uncle Vanya sounds like a pathetically funny melodrama, a social farce in a way. Vanya and Sonya, the daughter of his dead beloved sister, work hard managing the family’s country estate to support the urban life and intellectual activities of Sonia’s father, the Professor, who’s remarried a younger woman. The couple has recently moved to the estate, throwing its quiet life topsy-turvy. Vanya and the district’s doctor (loved unrequitedly by Sonya) have both fallen in love with the Professor’s demure young wife, and Vanya has lost faith with the Professor’s genius (though his aged mother’s still under his spell), thinking of him as epitomizing what Kierkegaard meant when he called a certain type of brilliant-seeming intellectual go-round a “scintillating inactivity.” The pot’s heated up, and soon boils over.
The directorial troika has assembled a very sympathetic cast: besides Spenger, Scott Alexander Ayres, Maureen Coyne, Jose Garcia, Martha Luermann, Sarah Meyeroff, Aaron Murphy, Jennifer Rice and Jerome Solberg.
On opening night, they hadn’t quite gelled into an ensemble, with the best work by Luermann throughout, and increasingly better work by Rice, Ayres, Garcia and Murphy as the evening went on and the play opened up. Spenger himself was showing Vanya’s more pathetic, acerbic and self-pitying side over both his underlying, idealized stoicism and caricaturized Romanticism. But a second night spectator reported that problems seemed to be no more than opening night jitters.
Spenger directed a very credible Hedda Gabler last year for Actors Ensemble, and now Chekhov: They aren’t afraid of the most difficult modern classics. And with a surprising Barefoot in the Park, directed by Barkan with Carlson’s assistance, Actors Ensemble shows it can do the most sparkling entertainment as well. Rose Anne Raphael’s flexible set design and Helen Slomowitz’s usual excellence in costuming, on a shoestring budget no doubt, add to the can-do sense of Vanya and Actors Ensemble’s recent productions—another reason we’re lucky with our local community theaters.
Presented by Actors Ensemble at 8 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays through May 17 at
Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Av. $10-$12.
649-5999. UNCLE VANYA Tickets