BWW Review: The Rude Mechanicals' UNCLE VANYA a Charming, Funny Glimpse of Country Life
OK, so face it; the words "Chekhov" and "comedy" generally don't occur in the same sentence. Ditto, the terms "Russian drama" and "amusing" - if anything, they're seen as oxymorons. But in his prime, the great Russian writer Dr. Anton Chekhov was famous for his comic short stories, and his one-act sitcoms had audiences all over Europe rolling in the aisles.
Why is it, then, that he remains an acquired taste here in the US? Why are we supposed to trudge in to see a 'classic' Chekhov play as if it were a super-slo-mo dose of castor oil?
Blame it on Stanislavsky. As we're taught in our theatre history classes, Constantine Stanislavsky created the Moscow Art Theatre and made Chekhov an 'overnight success' with his deeply moving, melancholy productions. Never mind that this gave Chekhov fits; his full-length plays, no matter how serious they seemed on the surface, weren't designed to be depressing.
'Sure, life sucks,' Anton might say, 'but really, what's to cry about?'
To Chekhov, our lives may be idiotic and pointless, but they are the stuff of farce; how better to celebrate our shabby human condition than laugh at ourselves?
So, it's wonderful to report that Maryland's own Rude Mechanicals has taken on a Chekhov classic and infused it with the irony and wry humor that-believe it or not-were just what Dr. Chekhov ordered. His play Uncle Vanya, set in a provincial farm and featuring a wide variety of clumsy, maladroit characters, is given a warm, funny, and tremendously sympathetic production. Adapted from a literal translation, director Melissa Schick has also given it a nice American touch, and with a solid cast The Rude Mechanicals have shown their talents go well beyond the Shakespeare which is their stock-in-trade.
Inspired by the massive migration of Russians to America in the late 1800's, when Chekhov's career was at its height, Schick has set Uncle Vanya on a farm in the little-known American town of Anton, Colorado, where farming has created a small environmental crisis because of massive forest-clearing. I mention this because Uncle Vanya is remembered fondly by environmentalists for Chekhov's passionate defense of our natural heritage.
The heart of the show is the farm's manager, the titular Uncle Vanya, and his niece Sonja; for years they have run the farm and sent off its meager profits to Vanya's brother-in-law (and Sonja's father), Professor Alexander, who lived in the big city with Sonya's stepmother, Yelena. It is Alexander's retirement and move to the country that triggers the non-stop crisis atmosphere of the play. Retirement clearly doesn't suit him; in fact being forced to live out on the farm drives him bat-crazy and as Chekhov shows, his madness is positively contagious.
Nathan Rosen leads the cast as Vanya, and he hilariously embodies the frustrations of a man who has sacrificed everything to keep his brother-in-law in gravy. Vanya's awkwardness (and poor aim with a pistol) are contrasted with one of Chekhov's most compelling innocents, his niece Sonya. Played with touching, quiet passion by Claudia Bach, it is Sonya who reminds us of the disappointments of life, but she holds fast to the determination to push on.
Other highlights in the cast are Bill Bodie as the hyper-egotistical Professor Alexander; Bodie's professor is a fish out of water, who talks to everyone as if they were undergrads in a lecture hall. As his young trophy wife Yelena, Erin Nealer has to deal with the advances of nearly every man who comes within 20 miles of her; Nealer does a fine job of keeping Yelena's her would-be suitors at bay, but takes full advantage of those few moments when Chekhov lets her be her true self.
Meanwhile there's Astrov, the local doctor played here with amusing understatement by Joshua Engel. Fond of his vodka and a bit too friendly towards Yelena, Engel's Astrov also prides himself on his efforts to revive the old forests which have been felled en masse for housing and fuel. Rarely has a playwright so acutely predicted our own times, and the environmental crises we now face.
The Rude Mechanicals are primarily an actor's theatre, but Spencer Dye and Leah DeLano have assembled convincing turn-of-the-century American costume touches, and Jeff Poretsky's lights create some nice moments. Eric Honour's sound designs are so discreet that even some of the ambient noises of Hanover, Maryland (the theatre is not far from the MARC train line, and BWI airport) blend in with the ambiance seamlessly.
In the right hands Uncle Vanya can be a sweet, funny glimpse of life in the country. If you're anywhere near Hanover's West Arundel Creative Arts facility, this production is well worth the visit.
Photo: Joshua Engel as Astrov, and Nathan Rosen as Uncle Vanya. Photo courtesy of Kevin Hollenbeck.
Uncle Vanya runs through February 23 at West Arundel Creative Arts, 1788 Dorsey Rd., Hanover, MD.