Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

*****

Chekhov met Leo Tolstoy for the first time at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1895, and that started a friendship that lasted until Chekhov’s death, nine years later. Although Chekhov was already famous for both his short stories and, increasingly, his plays, Tolstoy was the first name in Russian letters, the author of “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.”

During one of their encounters, perhaps the first, they talked about Chekhov’s work, and as Chekhov was about to leave, Tolstoy called him over to his bedside. Here’s how Chekhov described it to Peter Gnedich, a prominent literary man in Russia. “Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he [Tolstoy] took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’” It’s interesting that this was the beginning of their friendship, not the end of a fleeting acquaintance.

Why did Tolstoy object to Chekhov’s plays? “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go,” Tolstoy told Chekhov later, according to Gnedich. “And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.” And they both laughed, according to Gnedich’s account of Chekhov’s report.

They both laughed. Because, right, that’s a pretty good description of a Chekhov play: couches are important! The characters talk, they suffer, they sit, they suffer, they sit, they talk. Tolstoy nailed it!

*****

In “What Is Art?”, which Tolstoy wrote in 1898, we find another possible Tolstoyan objection to Chekhov, who between 1895 and 1898 had completed “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard” and had become a literary lion in his own right.

“We think the feelings experienced by people of our day and our class are very important and varied,” Tolstoy writes, “but in reality almost all the feelings of people of our class amount to but three very insignificant and simple feelings—the feeling of pride, the feeling of sexual desire, and the feeling of weariness of life. These three feelings, with their offshoots, form almost the sole subject-matter of the art of the rich classes.” And he then spends several paragraphs writing about sensuality and lust. Ahem.

Jacob Coleman as Vanya has been driven to distraction by Yelena in “Uncle Vanya.”/Photo by Owen Carey

“Uncle Vanya” is about all three. Let’s count just a few of the ways. Vanya himself suffers from all three, though he has to stretch a bit to manifest pride. He’s driven crazy by desire for his brother-in-law’s young wife, Yelena, and when he calms just a bit, sinks into a deep weariness of life. The brother-in-law is a professor, who is full of pride about his work, though Vanya leads us to believe that all that scholarship has come to nothing. Vanya’s friend Astrov, the local doctor and a stand-in of sorts for Chekhov himself, has begun as an energetic and selfless man, but now blames the provinces for flattening him into a world-weariness similar to Vanya’s—and he lusts after Yelena, too. Both of them very openly attempt to seduce her away from the professor.

Yelena is the very picture of the indolence that world-weariness so often reflects itself, and she has flashes of desire for Astrov, but not enough to do anything but…move from couch to couch. Sonya, the professor’s daughter by Vanya’s sister, has had her calm acceptance of toil on the estate upset by the magnetism of Astrov, an unrequited love that flattens her into a deep sadness. And Vanya’s mother is full of pride for her support of the professor and perhaps feels amorous about him, too (especially in the PETE version).

So, right. If you are upper class in “Uncle Vanya” you are a hot mess.

But I think Chekhov understands that, too. And I suspect that IF Tolstoy’s critique of Chekhov’s work is based on his view of their empty fascination with pride, lust and the attitude of weariness, then I think he’s got it wrong. As I think the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, whose celebrated productions of Chekhov’s work for the Moscow Art Theater made Chekhov famous, got him wrong.

Oh, and by the way, that’s an impression that PETE helps correct with this production of “Uncle Vanya.” They treat it more like a farce than a tragedy. In this reading and then this production, the life of Vanya is played for its comic effect, not as a reasonable response to the dullness of the provinces, thwarted lust, or even the dullness of life itself. Vanya isn’t reasonable or praiseworthy, though we do come to like him quite a lot. And lolling on couches isn’t part of the program.

*****

I have been down this road before with Chekhov via another PETE production, 2014’s remarkably staged “Three Sisters”—the debate between Stanislavski and Chekhov about whether Chekhov had written a comedy or a tragedy, I mean. PETE makes the case for the comic version in the best possible way, which is to say on stage, with real actors taking real chances in front of a live audience. World weariness is easy; comedy is hard (just to paraphrase British actor Edmund Gwenn, Edmund Kean or Jack Lemmon, whoever got there first).

It’s easier when you have a solidly updated script (courtesy of Lewis & Clark professor Štêpàn Šimek), a sharp jazzy trio (Courtney Von Drehle, Ralph Huntley, Don Henson, with music direction by Andrei Temkin) to provide an almost constant musical score that interacts cleverly with the action onstage, a quick pace to the languors of the upper classes and their attraction to long speeches (PETE member Cristi Miles directs), and a cast in tune to the inner logic of the farce inside “Uncle Vanya.”

Without a Vanya committed to the comic possibilities in the play, things would have fallen to earth very quickly. Fortunately, Vanya’s in the hands of Jacob Coleman, who can go from drunken unconsciousness to full rant in under five seconds. So distracted by Yelena, so angry at and envious of the professor, so filled with self-disgust, this Vanya dances about, flops around, cajoles lasciviously, drinks heavily, and collapses dangerously, often on his bottom but sometimes in full belly-flop mode. I think of it as clowning of a very high order, because it feels so spontaneous, but Coleman is in service to an idea about the play that he never loses sight of.

Prentice Onayemi’s Astrov balances his friend Vanya’s temporary insanity with a certain dignity, even when he begs Yelena for one parting kiss. No flopping about here: Onayemi is upright, smooth, a bit exasperated at himself above all; sympathetic to Sonya’s love for him but not about to give in to it. He finds it hard to leave the estate, even though things haven’t ended very well for him.

Prentice Onayemi as Dr. Astrov and Amber Whitehall as Yelena in “Uncle Vanya.”/Photo by Owen Carey

The object of Vanya and Astrov’s desire is Yelena, played by Amber Whitehall, who maintains a placid outward appearance and then undermines it comically by modelling her shiny costumes (by Jenny Ampersand) in a series of exaggerated poses, voguing across the stage, smiling under a series of wigs. She rarely shows much emotion, though her concern for Sonya seems real enough, and when she ducks under the covers to liven up the professor’s evening a bit, she’s not put off when he retreats from her. Yelena is just along for the ride, however boring and/or silly it becomes.

I quite enjoyed Victor Mack’s professor, who is more energetic and animated than he’s usually played. I suppose that’s the pride at work? And I really liked his tango with Maureen Porter as Vanya’s mother. Sometimes mother knows best! Jim Vadala as Waffles, a family retainer, added to the musical accompaniment and comedy, too.

*****

That leaves Nanny and Sonya. The latter is nearly always played sympathetically: She works hard on the estate, she tries to make this odd family work, she’s kind, people make fun of her, and her love for the doctor makes us feel sorry for her. We hope Astrov will have a change of heart, but no, that’s not going to happen. Joellen Sweeney makes a sweet and musical Sonya, and she doesn’t take her love-struck giddiness too far, just to the point of recognition. It’s as though she’s the only one in the play who isn’t playing farce, and maybe that’s a requirement for good farce: Everyone can’t be Groucho; someone has to play Zeppo. Her last lines are heartbreaking, and though I’ve tried to imagine them done for laughs, I can’t make it work in my head. She’s imagining what happens after they’ve worked hard their whole lives and then “obediently” died:

“We will rest! We’ll hear the angels, we’ll see the whole sky studded with diamonds, we’ll see all the evil on earth, and all our struggles swept away by mercy, which will fill the entire world, and our lives will become quiet, tender, and sweet like a caress. I believe it, I believe it….Poor, poor uncle Vanya, you’re crying…We will rest!”

The same thing happened in PETE’s “Three Sisters,” and I assigned it to Chekhov’s dictum that the writer must have compassion.

Of all the “Uncle Vanya” characters, the only one who isn’t of the landed gentry (falling or fallen as they may be) is Nanny, played with a nice edge by Lucy Paschall, who also has a fine singing voice. Although she’s funny, she isn’t a figure of fun in this universe. She’s got good common sense, she’s sympathetic, she isn’t consumed by pride, lust or weariness with life. She makes “Uncle Vanya” into something that maybe even Tolstoy might enjoy (unless she’s played too broadly, a stereotypical babushka), a sort of proof of his contention that the upper classes lived narrow lives compared to the rest of Russian society. In this Chekhov and Tolstoy were aligned.

After the climax of the play, which involves gun play and sends the professor and Yelena fleeing to Kharkov and away from the estate, the nanny puts it all right, the way it was before the professor and Yelena showed up.

“We’ll go back to living the way we were. Tea at eight in the morning, lunch at one, a sit-down dinner at the table; everything the way it’s supposed to be, like decent Christian folk…It’s been ages since I had a real plate of noodles.”

Joellen Sweeney as Sonya, foreground, and Amber Whitehall as Yelena in “Uncle Vanya.”/Photo by Owen Carey

Exactly. If you can’t take pleasure in a real plate of noodles, you’ve drifted too far afield, even if, like the doctor, you work hard to heal the sick in the present and to ensure the survival of the forest because you are worried about the future. “We’re all moochers in God’s eyes,” Nanny says a little later.

The doctor soon takes up the same line as he consoles Vanya: “You’re not crazy; you’re just a freak. A clown. I used to think that all those freaks around me were really sick; that they weren’t normal, but I came to the realization that being a freak is a perfectly normal human condition. You are perfectly normal my friend.” Well, maybe he is.

We will rest! I like the exclamation mark. I think Tolstoy would have been moved, at least a little bit. And though, yes, it’s a little discordant after all the hijinks, maybe we need to settle gently, at the end.

Notes

1. The Chekhov quotes come from “Memories of Chekhov,” a documentary account of Chekhov’s life assembled from letters, diaries and books by Peter Sekirin and published in 2011.

2. Chekhov had a theory about why Tolstoy disliked Shakespeare, which he related to the Russian novelist Ivan Bunin: “I admire him greatly. What I admire the most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more accurate description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty space. Our short stories, or even our novels, all are child’s play in comparison with his works. However, Shakespeare… For him, the reason is different. Shakespeare irritates him because he is a grown-up writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does.”

3. So, what IS art, per Tolstoy, you might wonder. It’s a short book, and the first half is devoted to crushing the idea that art has anything to do with beauty, specifically. In the second half, he builds his own definition, basically that art is a communication system that facilitates our understanding of each other and that good art appeals to the good in us. For Tolstoy, the good led to God and a brotherhood of humans. But the book is a delightful read, even the demolition of Beauty, and highly recommended.

4. PETE’s production of “Uncle Vanya” continues through January 24 in the Studio Theater at Reed College’s Performing Arts Center.

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