Arts Listings

Cal Shakes Brings ‘Uncle Vanya’ to Orinda’s Bruns Amphitheater

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday August 14, 2008 - 09:10:00 AM

When a pompous old professor (James Carpenter as Serebryakov) and his alluring young wife (Sarah Grace Wilson as Yelena) take up residence with his relations by marriage on his late wife’s country estate, their extravagant style unsettles the household—and some of its visitors. It’s not just the professor’s pontificating, or the hours they keep, it’s the demands they make that get under everyone’s skin. 

Vanya (Dan Hiatt), brother to the professor’s late wife, and Astrov (Andy Murray), the district doctor (and reforestation enthusiast), both follow Yelena around like lovelorn schoolboys. They joke with her that, since she’s come, everybody has knocked off work, just talks ... is she a witch? No, Vanya proclaims, a siren. A landlocked mermaid who makes others restless. 

When Vanya goes to fetch her some “beautiful, melancholy autumn roses” (a lugubrious line that gets repeated), she sighs and says out loud but to herself, “September, already. How am I going to live through the winter?” 

Such posing for no one on particular, such absurd, self-regarding lines, are the stuff of existence for Chekhov’s gentry, whose lives dissipate in endless circles—the same games played out endlessly, as we see onstage in CalShakes’ production of Uncle Vanya, outdoors in the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, as September is indeed coming on. 

“The humor of everyday life,” I overheard a spectator say at intermission when Actors Ensemble staged Vanya in Stan Spenger’s production earlier this year. After generations of Stanislavski’s “pathetic” approach to Chekhov as melodrama, an approach Chekhov vociferously opposed, the pendulum seems to be swinging to comic interpretations of this unique playwright, as well as a few other modernists heretofore presented “pathetically”: Strindberg, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, to name the most obvious. 

(Ironic, as humorous parodies of Chekhov’s eccentrics were so often played, are prominent in certain works by Bernard Shaw and others; the parody was closer to the mark than the “official” version.) 

Director Timothy Near of San Jose Rep presides over the cast, which, in part, reflects this interpretation, as does Emily Mann’s adaptation. Hiatt, Howard Swain (playing the cheerful and pathetic hanger-on, Waffles) and Joan Mankin (as Vanya’s mother, Maria Voynitsky) are all well-known in the Bay Area for their comic interpretations. 

The situation is ripe for humor—almost stretched to the point of soap opera. Vanya, whose endeavors managing the estate—along with his niece Sonya (Annie Purcell), the daughter of the professor and Vanya’s late sister—have supported the professor, whom Vanya has come to despise, as he regrets his own drab, middle-aged existence. Sonya lights up whenever the doctor comes—and the doctor comes for Yelena. Vanya carries on, the professor pontificates and complains, Yelena and Sonya try to patch things up ... in different combinations. They all revolve like the figures around a medieval clock. 

Chekhov’s style was considered strange, suspicious even, from the start. It seemed formless, concerned with little nothings; in the program, he’s compared to Beckett. Chekhov’s plays are modular, progressing less by plot than by vignettes between characters. The great director V. S. Meyerhold, who as an actor with Stanislavski premiered several Chekov plays and grew close to him, said Chekhov’s poetry was in the rhythm of the words, and allowed flashes of figurative poetry: “an old man dancing with a woman [in The Cherry Orchard] is, for a moment, Death—but just for a moment.” 

The cutting for this production has reduced this artful indirectness and cut down the possibilities for several promising performances: Carpenter as the professor, Swain as Waffles, Mankin as the obstreperous mother. What may seem like repetitions in the parts that were cut not only develop the rhythm but show the characters saying or doing similiar things with others—an important humorous mode. 

The choice of comic emphasis, since the “aha” tha Chekhov was a humorist (as he himself maintained), seems superficial. Dan Hiatt, a talented comic actor, puts in an atonally silly performance as Vanya—silly in the sense a sitcom protagonist is silly, plays it silly. His climactic scenes, which read as hysterical, embarrassing and very funny, lose most of their humor, a souffle that collapses after much comic buildup. (The streamlining of Chekhov’s indirection, of his characters’ indirectness as gentry, makes for uneven performances, too—Sarah Grace Wilson, often fine with her expressions and body language, has the languid Yelena speaking like an American college girl. Some of the problem may be in the adapted script.) 

And Chekhov’s most overtly humorous lines don’t get a laugh, aren’t played to get one: the doctor, a self-acknowledged misanthrope and yet one who insists “think global/act local,” constantly showing maps and charts to the uninterested, glances in a claustrophobic moment at a world map, smiles and says: “It must be stifling in Africa right now!”—or best of all, Vanya, blowing his stack: “If I’d led a normal life, I could’ve been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky!” Not a laugh ... 

(Though a Russian friend remarked that it was hard to tell how much of his humor was of the dark kind of a doctor who is also a patient, his helpless gentry should ring a bell in today’s atmosphere of entropy.)  

Nonetheless, some of the middle scenes work, if only in moments, and the bittersweet quality of summer fading into autumn, in lives and society as well as nature, brings a spark of sentiment—closer to Stanislavski’s noble conception—watching these quiet moments, broken by fits and starts, on Erik Flatmo’s radiant wood interiors exposed under a late summer sky. 



Presented by California Shakespeare Theater Tuesdays-Sundyas through Aug. 31 at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda. Times vary. $52–$57.