Feeling Dissatisfied with Life? Have Some Vodka! And Then Go See Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's Brilliant UNCLE VANYA
I like Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and I like Chekov, so the two together is a match made in heaven as far as I'm concerned. But this production of Chekov's tragicomedy UNCLE VANYA, newly translated by Štepán Šimek and directed by Cristi Miles, surpassed my very high expectations. It's not dusty or stuffy or academic. It's PETE, so it's a little weird, but not inaccessibly weird. Ultimately, it's funny and gut-wrenching, and it perfectly captures the anxiety of boredom, the irresistible allure of shiny things, and the hopelessness of realizing that this is it. Plus, there's live music.
The play has a plot, but it doesn't tell a story so much as explore the condition of being dissatisfied with having wasted one's life. It takes place on an estate where Vanya and his niece, Sonya, live and work to send money to Alexander, a failed scholar and also Sonya's father (Sonya's mother is dead). When Alexander and his new, much younger second wife, Yelena, come to stay, it throws the entire household out of whack.
Alexander is old and suffering from gout and generally miserable. Vanya hates Alexander and resents that he's wasted his life supporting him. He's also in love with Yelena. More accurately, he's obsessed to the point that he doesn't see that her shiny (in this production, increasingly shiny) outside masks a completely vacant inside. Sonya is in love with the town doctor, Astrov, with whom she has no chance, especially since he has also fallen under Yelena's spell. Marina, the nanny, just wants things to get back to their normal schedule of tea at 8 and lunch at 1. In short, none of them is happy and no one has any idea what to do about it. Except, of course, drink vodka and complain.
It sounds like more of a downer than it is. I'd describe the central emotion more as a crippling restlessness. The play is also quite funny, an aspect missing from many productions, but which this one puts center stage and leverages very well.
Jacob Coleman's performance as Vanya is remarkable. Director Cristi Miles has crafted a punishing role that brings Vanya's inner torture into the physical realm. He falls, rolls down stairs, and performs several extended Russian dance moves - the kind that involve a lot of squatting and jumping. I'm not sure how he makes it to the end of the play still standing, much less able to convey the complicated emotions of a character in midlife crisis.
Also notable were Joellen Sweeney as Sonya, the practical one whose story is, in the end, the most tragic of them all, and Amber Whitehall, who's stylized portrayal of Yelena is a cross between Jessica Rabbit (think: "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way.") and an awkward humanoid robot.
Adding to the feel of it all is the live music - both feature songs and mood music - provided by Courtney Von Drehle, Ralph Huntley, and Don Henson. They play a ton of unique instruments, or objects-as-instruments, including my personal favorite, the typewriter. This fun feature also gives the characters some good excuses to dance.
If you're already predisposed to like UNCLE VANYA, you'll love this production. Even more importantly, if you hate Chekov or think you won't get it or that it's old and irrelevant, I urge you to give this production a try. If anything can change your mind, this is it.
UNCLE VANYA runs at the Diver Studio at Reed College through January 21. You should most definitely see it. Details and tickets here.