April 9, 1996

'Uncle Vanya' puts comedy back into Chekhov

By Barry Levey

It is commonly said of Chekhov plays that they are dramas about furniture: people sitting in furniture, people standing in front of furniture, and, during scene changes, people moving furniture. Critics are quick to assert that the lack of physical action in Chekhov makes for boring characters and boring theater.

Alex Lippard's, BR '97, production of Uncle Vanya, going up this weekend in the Silliman Dramatic Attic, aims to rectify all that. With often masterly direction, Lippard puts the comedy back into Chekhov; at the same time he coaxes some remarkable performances from his actors and makes the emotional action of the piece far more exciting than the furniture. Yet despite Lippard and company's noble efforts, the production finally comes off as something less than the sum of its parts.

Much of the show's inability to satisfy comes from the script itself, a relentless romance of hopelessness. Every character is unhappy, and every character gets his chance to tell us so. They also tell each other-crying, kissing, and shooting-to call attention to their plights. Each one of them resists personal growth like the plague, and they all pretty much succeed. Chekhov crafts a play in which no one makes a true emotional journey; everyone ends precisely where he or she started. This inherent self-destruction is precisely what makes Uncle Vanya the intruiging classic that it is.

But Lippard strives gallantly to portray the redemption that common misery gives these people, and in this aim he is backed by an extraordinary, if sundry, cast. In the title role, Michael Bakkensen, BR '96, is an effectively tormented soul on a country estate, facing middle age with the realization that his life has been wasted on making others happy while his dreams slipped away.

He is surrounded by friends and family who all come to the same realization, and no one deals with it well. Even the one character who has actually fulfilled his dreams finds that they bring him nothing but bankruptcy and old age. All these actors are good; Michael Bell, TD '97, is especially good at matching Bakkensen's intense despair as the doctor who never parts from either the estate or the bottle.

Yet, maddeningly, each individual actor loses something in the group scenes. The chemistry between them is less than nonexistent, it's palpably negative. What luck, then, to have Elisabeth Waterston, DC '99, at the center of the play. More than an artist, Waterston is a magician, effortlessly bringing out the best in her fellow actors. No one is quite as good as when they are sharing the stage with her; she is enchanting.

She plays Yelena Andreyevna, whose entrance to the country estate begins the action of the piece and whose departure ends it. Her beauty and quiet intensity make the men of the house fall in love and the women grow too envious to be productive. And just as her character casts a spell over the estate, Waterston casts a spell over the production. Portraying a young, emotional woman married to an old, unfeeling man, Waterston wrenchingly walks a fine line; Yelena must surpress her every feeling while showing that she does, indeed, feel.

Waterston succeeds in this by keeping herself physically unyielding. She is stiff and guarded at all times, constantly clutching her body as if she is afraid her emotions might actually spill out. Her performance leaves no doubt as to whom Chekhov envisioned as the focal point of the show.

In fact, Lippard has even more going for himself here than Waterston and a fine cast. His directorial craftsmanship reaches its apex in his ability to bring the humor back to Uncle Vanya. Audiences have long scoffed at Chekhov's own insistence that Vanya is a comedy, but Lippard takes him on his word. Sometimes the jokes are sorely out of place; the slapstick episodes are distracting and inappropriate. More often, however, Lippard opts for a humane sort of humor, one born out of the characters themselves. When he sticks to this type of comedy, Lippard adds some moments to the play that are more than funny; they are genuinely moving. The show's real punch comes from Lippard's insistence on starkness for the production. The characters are emotionally raw, the stage is unpainted and very nearly empty. Of course, this is Chekhov, so there is there requisite furniture (a table, a couch, and assorted chairs), but other than these few objects, the stage is commanded entirely by the actors. The lights, by Stephen Kincaid, are similarly plain, and while the costumes are period, they are not showy.

Ultimately, the cast cannot fully overcome their two major obstacles: the oppresive, motionless weight of the material, and their lack of group chemistry. Still, they pull off a very noble Vanya effort. Despite these flaws, innovative comic touches and subtly rewarding performances make this production worthwhile.

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