BBW Review: UNCLE VANYA Brings Anton Chekhov to the Stage at The City Theatre in Austin, TX.
Celebrated as a revolutionary playwright in turn of the century Industrial Russia, Anton Chekhov delivers an examination of urban and country life in his play, UNCLE VANYA. Now playing at The City Theatre in East Austin, this famous playwrights works are brought to stage for the first time at this community theater. New beginnings of this play date back to 1898 with publishing and debuting a year later in full production by the Moscow Art Theatre. Directed by the godfather of modern acting, Konstantin Stanislavski brings the struggle of class and love to the stage. Set on a run-down estate in the woods of Russia, our hometown family of characters are disrupted by an elderly professor and his much younger, and very attractive second wife, Yelena. The pining title character of the play Vanya is the long running estate manager and brother to the sickly professors first wife. Intimated and teetering on the edge of patience, Vanya befriends the towns local doctor, Astrov in an effort to pass the time and pontificate his frustrations and helplessness. Quickly into the play, Astrov and Vanya fall under the spell of the beautiful Yelena, throwing themselves in circumstances unbecoming of a married woman. Into the mix is Vanya's niece, Sonya who lives in a lonely love with doctor Astrov. With the demise of characters and the estate at risk, our characters desperately attempt to navigate the tough terrain ahead of them.
With the premise sounding more like a Shakespearean comedy, Chekhov utilizes the classic literary technique of soliloquies to convey the inner thoughts and desires our of characters. These monologues as written provide an examination of introspective motives and obstacles for each character. As with the direction and presentation at The City Theatre, a majority of the words written by Chekhov are lost in the slow pacing of the show. Covering four acts clocking thirty-minutes each, the play left the audience wondering when the next inciting action would occur. Watching the characters interact given the premise and connection to one another, the tension should have been able to be cut with a knife. However dire the stakes of the estate and characters, the pride or love at risk for their respective actors varied in importance, therefore limiting the audience's ability to support these characters in what they desperately desire. Examining the actors' interpretation of Chekhov's 19th century-inspired personalities, the actual words to be spoken are the main culprit for many of the actors difficulties on stage. As a result of adding modern cadence and not applying melodic delivery, many of the scenes and progressing story was lost through the actors discovery of the words slowly onstage, or an over-delivery of the text, pulling the audience out of the action.
With a largely barren stage presented, the surrounding setting of a Russian forest estate depends on the actors ability to convey the surroundings through the words provided by Anton Chekhov. This unfortunately fell flat and added confusion to where scenes were set and why actors were interacting. Dr. Astrov (played by Andrew Fisher), delivered moments of insight and creativity but was overpowered by his consistent discovery of what was being communicated. Discoveries are very important onstage, but not at the sacrifice of pace and plot. Although the pace was slow, Fisher's creativity onstage was interesting but felt more appropriate for an intense acting class than positioning Dr. Astrov's character in an overall story. Titular character Uncle Vanya (played by Beau Paul) delivered a very committed performance revelling in desperation of a man crumbling under the pressures in front of him. This proved to be a demanding interpretation of Chekhov's words presenting Vanya as out of control and erratic. However, Beau Paul's vocal work was impressive as he prophesied about his demise and overwhelming love for young Yelana (played by Brianna Ripkowski). Ripkowski was a vision onstage as she is positioned as the beautiful opposite of Sonia (played by Julia Salas). However, with the beauty and worth of both woman written into the play, Ripkowski brought genuine surprises to the stage with her character direction and Salas represented broken heartache with heartfelt tears. Both women however are beautiful, so the narrative that Sonia could not be married off due to a lack of attraction must have been solely based on consistent tears, as opposed to her looks.
Overall, the story written by Anton Chekhov is a compelling character driven piece examining the love and hardship they individually faced and the tangled web of complications brought on by family. With themes equally as important today as it was in Chekhov's time, this play displays the hopes all audiences can relate to.
Photo Credit: Aleks Ortynski