Thursday, April 8, 2010

In tsarist Russia...

Pity me, ladies 'n' gents, since I have sustained a pathetic yet strangely-debilitating injury: a papercut neatly between my thumb and index finger, perfectly calibrated to open painfully if I extend my left hand beyond the pathetic claw shape it currently forms. I will now make a pathetic attempt to peck out this entry.

Oh, did I mention "pathetic" a couple of times in that paragraph just now? Know what else is pathetic? The plight of the characters in Uncle Vanya, isolated out on their country estate with only a grumpy environmentalist alcoholic doctor to visit them. Know what else is pathetic (though, as you will see, not so much as I'd feared)? Going to see a three-hour version of Uncle Vanya in Russian when you do not know any Russian. And seeing it from behind a pillar no less (it was either that or with obstructed English supertitles) (apparently Russian-language plays are quite the in thing for the Brooklyn crowd: tickets were nearly sold out a month in advance).

But let me back up. In the bleak, dark, peasanty days of 2006 (or was it 2005?), intrepid director A.— got it in his head to stage some Chekhov at our venerable institution. I signed on as assistant director, relegating my and M.—'s own darling Arcadia to the (arguably more-suitable) spring. Months and months of living in Vanya's world ensued. As A.— explained, the play isn't about plot, it's about characters inhabiting a space. We as director-y folk, as well as the audience (and of course the actors, for whom I am told this is a transformative experience) are invited to see this world unfold in real time.

And Vanya is a real-life experience indeed. There's humor, relationship drama, ennui...but no easy answers. Even a would-be murderer is not subjected to any form of vengeance; even a pretentious old windbag can earn our empathy.*

I had not devoted much thought to Vanya of late, but about a month ago A.— emailed with a proposition: Would I like to see the Russian version at BAM? Yes, I decided, I would. It'd be intriguing to revisit the piece after such familiarity followed by such a remove. Perhaps we could drift away into a nostalgic fugue state of vodka and guitar songs.

Like the situation Chekhov wrote into being all those years ago, my actual experience of the evening proved both more and less complicated than I'd anticipated. On the one hand, the play (all three-plus hours of it) was, simply, a really enjoyable experience. Through, I suspect, a combination of my familiarity to the piece and the skill with which the production was executed, I immediately got swept into the scene. It's easy to relate to the characters, and this production really played up empathy, in a way I'm not sure we did in ours. There were comic moments everywhere: botched seductions, offers of vodka, and much pontification abounded (man, Dr. Astrov has a lot to say about trees). That tree note, actually, is another way the play invites you to empathize: the doctor, unusually for his time, is quite an environmentalist. He's a bit windbaggy in his descriptions of the dwindling flora and fauna in the land around the estate, but his concerns are spot-on for today. When he talks about the destruction of the natural world, you don't picture some turn-of-the-century woodland; you imagine all the environmental challenges we currently face.

The more complicated and personal aspect of the experience involved remembering our production. It is, above all, a rare privilege to work with a text for so long and then get a chance to see it through someone else's interpretation. As mentioned, I feel that this production played up the empathy card in ways we didn't consider. Conversely, they also dredged up some knotty difficulties we didn't explore—in particular, the character of Sonya, young and stranded on the estate, hopelessly in love with the good doctor, always seemed the most sympathetic to me. In this production, her bossiness and nagging and just general cluelessness are played up in a way that makes her less saintly. She doesn't remain without nuance, though. A.— felt that in our play, Sonya's end-of-show assertion that "we'll rest" was more openly hopeful. Here, she exhibits such despair that it ripped at least this audience member apart.

But something about the show transcends even that despair. I think it may have to do with the characters' interaction with, and love for, their landscape, despite all the trouble it brings them. The scene where Sonya and Elena stand lost in their own worries, on the brink of a connection, Sonya silhouetted by the blue rain of an open window, Elena yellow-lit by the warmth of the room—it conveys all the love, sorrow, and beauty that the characters can't bring themselves to express. And the set design consists, largely, of a trio of haystacks suspended on wooden beams above the action on the stage. The stacks, on their wooden feet, reminded me of these, albeit much more graceful. In mock-English-paper-symbolism mode, I told A.— they represented the crushing weight of the estate looming above the characters. Jokiness aside, this was basically the case. And at the play's end, after Sonya's appeal for rest, the whole haystack structure softly lowered onto the characters, enclosing their desk and chairs with beams and stacks. Claustrophobic in a way, to be sure, but also lovely and somehow comforting, much like the show itself.

*Sorry not to give you more plot points and character descriptions, but if I did, we'd be here all day.

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