Uncle Vanya

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.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Double Chekhov, Ghost Hunters

It's January. Time to shake off that holidays hangover and get on with the shows.

Hello. The holidays are over and now plays can be about anything again. Next week brings Fertile Ground, brimming with homegrown theater offerings of every conceivable topic and timbre. There’ll be almost too much to mention then, so this week by comparison is short to summarize.

For those who can’t wait ’til next week, a couple of plays are opening early that you can Chekhov your list.* Northwest Classical Theatre brings Patrick Walsh’s adaptation of The Three Sisters to its old stomping grounds the Shoebox (with a familiar face from last season’s Playhouse Creatures gracing the cast). I, for one, miss the days when NWCT used to hang their collection of velvet cloaks in the Shoebox’s breezeway. Glad they’re back.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in Northwest Classical Theatre Collaboration’s “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble presents Štĕpán Šimek‘s “visceral, in-your-face” take on Uncle Vanya at Reed College. Expect surprises. (Though in the context of Chekhov, what does that mean? A gun not firing? Who knows?)

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