The prospect of a 3 hour production of Uncle Vanya performed in Russian with subtitles was, how you say, a little grim. I’ve been gone from home a lot lately, and while the work week wasn’t particularly tough, I miss my lazy time. But when are you going to get to see Chekov in Russian again, I asked myself. So I showed up to my usher gig, seated a house that was only about half full, and then watched the show.
It was nothing short of revelatory.
In his wonderful book, How Not to Write a Play, Walter Kerr states that one sure way to clear out a house and lose money is to schedule a Chekov play. He also contends that Chekov ruined more American playwrights than any other writer.
So, two things: if Americans did Chekov like this – are they capable of it? I think they could be – the houses would fill up. And much as I love Walter, you can’t ruin a non-talent.
Here’s the thing: Americans walk around with Chekov on a silver salver, carrying it high overhead so it won’t be sullied. Russians, of course, know this is bullshit. Chekov ain’t precious. In fact, the play was uproariously funny, getting increasingly absurd as it continued – and it was perfect. Sonya, the martyr niece who continually complains about how ugly she is – is she fishing for compliments? is she a sadomasochist who enjoys making other people uncomfortable at her “honesty”? – is played in America as a gentle, slightly mentally impaired, pathetic maiden aunt. In this production, by the Maly Theater of St. Petersburg, Sonya is a coiled fury contained under a mostly impassive facade, a solid workhorse who learns, by play’s end, to never ever let her vulnerability show again.
Every character was played with the same intensity, and was equally thrilling to watch. In this production, Vanya is a hot-headed nut, Sonya’s opposite, wearing his heart on his sleeve and practically putting knives in people’s hands to cut it up. Nobody wants the knife. Elena IS silly, bored, confused, young, to be pitied and scorned but also enchanting. Dr. Astrov is no heartthrob at all – nice casting – just the guy who happens to come along and relieve the boredom with his dull, vaguely self-righteous rants about trees. The old professor, Elena’s husband, is a disconnected intellectual, worthy of Vanya’s contempt and yet charismatic enough that we understand Elena’s initial infatuation. And the servants, Waffles and Nanny, are by turns bossy and confused that life’s problems can’t be solved by a cup of tea or a shot of vodka.
3 scenes I don’t want to forget:
1. The night meeting between Elena and Sonya. In this scene, Elena proposes to Sonya that the two bury a hatchet – we don’t really learn the source of the conflict – and become friends. When Americans do this, it becomes a tender scene of two women reconciling and trying to find common ground and it is deadly dull. Here, Elena promptly gets drunk, Sonya warily agrees to end the stalemate but remains guarded and on the verge of insult. The tension between Elena’s flippancy, which she can afford given her beauty, and Sonya’s insistence on grounding everything with a thud, is completely gripping. When, at the end, Elena proclaims she will play the piano if her husband says it’s ok, Sonya returns to say, “He says ‘No.’ ” When I’ve seen this before, the women are both sad. Here, Sonya can barely conceal her delight that Elena is not going to get her way. But the scene continued, remarkably. As Sonya makes her way out of the room, stopping to stretch, breathtakingly, against a window lit up against a gentle rain, Elena begins disrespectfully plinking out a tune using her husband’s score of medicine bottles. This turns into a tantrum, where she throws all the bottles down in a clatter, then, drunk and weeping, straightens them up, kissing a couple of them. She then stands, lets loose a huge fart, giggles, and totters out of the room. It sounds insane. It was magnificent.
2. When Elena and the professor are about to leave, she has a final few moments alone with Astrov, who has made a pass at her – interestingly (of course) in this production, the first kiss between the two is more like a wrestling match, with Elena confused and resistant until Vanya breaks in on the two of them. In America, this is a scene of great Pathos and Heart-Wrenchingness. Here, the doctor asks for a final kiss. Elena raises her face tenderly, and the doctor gives each cheek a rough peck, then prepares to go. Elena then walks away, around the room, shuts both doors tight, and throws herself at the doctor. At last, they kiss with incredible passion – only to have the whole family walk in on them. AND it’s played for laughs. Again, fantastic.
3. The final speech of the play is quite touching, but almost a little squirm-inducing in its unbridled, lush imagery. Sonya and her uncle sit at the table, he devastated by Elena’s departure, she stoic as always, then waxing poetic about how they will both work hard until they die, nothing will change, but then they will rest and see the stars in a sky bright as diamonds. It’s the kind of language that makes high school girls giddy; in the usher room at intermission, one older woman (most of the ushers are in their 60s or older) said, “I just love that speech, ‘We will rest, Uncle Vanya, we will rest.’ ” I knew that the speech would be worthwhile, but I did cringe at the sentimental, “isn’t that special?” anticipation. No worries. Sonya delivered the speech in a voice that became harder and more bitter as each harsh Russian consonant left her mouth. I cried not at Sonya’s hope – throughout the play, she maintains a stubborn inner light that flares up occasionally – but at this proof that she has utterly lost it.
I’ve only seen a couple of straight shows where I felt absolutely riveted in place in a way only live theater can deliver. This was one.