PROVO — Last week, Utah Shakespeare in the Park performed their latest production, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The company seeks to present abridged works to make classic theatre accessible to modern audiences. Though I was somewhat surprised this group would branch out beyond the works of William Shakespeare so soon after their premiere summer shows, Much Ado and Romeo & Juliet, I applaud the group for taking such a risk to tackle a difficult piece like Uncle Vanya.
The play is a “dramedy” of sorts– not exactly a comedy, but with enough humor to sweeten the weight of the drama. Uncle Vanya was written in the late 1890’s and premiered in Moscow in 1899, starring Konstantin Stanislavski as Astrov the doctor. The play recounts the story of an old retired professor, Serebrakov (played by Jordan Kramer), who lives on the estate of his deceased wife with his daughter, Sonya (Hannah Miner), and young new wife, Yelena (Jacqueline Johnson). Serebrakov is irritable and suffers from gout, but resents and refuses recommended treatments from Astrov (Christopher Sherwood Davis). The estate is run by Vanya (Bryan Bowerman), Sonya’s uncle, who earns very little of the estate’s income for his own salary. Tension mounts as Astrov and Vanya are both in love with Yelena, who spurns them both, and Sonya is in love with Astrov, who fails to notice her. When the professor announces that he intends to sell the estate in favor of living closer to town, Vanya tries to kill him.
It’s a beautiful story that really delves into the complexity of existence, particularly in a rather pastoral setting. The play examines the simultaneously juxtaposing joy and misery of human relationships which all seem to come to a head given the small space the characters share and the limited contact they have with other people. Unfortunately, while it was clear the cast of this production clearly get along well and have some natural chemistry, overall the performance really lacked subtlety and the delicate nuance that balances the ironic humor that blooms from real misery.
My largest concern was the inappropriate laughter from the audience throughout the play. While credit needs to be given to a clearly uninformed audience in this case, the general goofiness that permeated the performance did not do much to clearly indicate when it would be appropriate to perhaps indulge a chuckle. For example, there should be no reason for an audience to laugh at an attempted homicide during a climactic and emotional scene. Of course, Chekhov has a very tricky way of turning on a dime, but without a deep understanding of that turn or how to execute it, the audience will be unable to follow– which was very clearly the problem.
I also found myself asking a number of questions that I had hoped would have been answered– or at least asked– during the rehearsal process. What is it about Telegin (Lawrence Fernandez) that makes his face look so much like waffles that it becomes his nickname? Is Sonya as plain or ugly as she purports to be, or is her plainness a deep insecurity that’s more a state of mind than it is physical, since Hannah Miner is actually a very pretty girl? What is it about Yelena or what does she specifically do to make men fall in love with her? Is Vanya truly ashamed of his extreme actions, and why does Serebrakov seem to forgive him so readily for attempting to murder him? It is one thing to memorize and perform lines for a show, but since the play begins after years of interactions between these characters, it is vital to ask– and answer– questions that will get to the heart of these people and really drive their motivations.
There were also moments throughout the play where action or character choice was informed by the script but not executed by the actors. I did not feel that Yelena seemed particularly surprised when Astrov noted her “look of surprise.” Sonya was apparently crying at a point where she was being comforted and asked “why are you crying?” though I did not see it. It is specifically noted that Astrov “acts like a bear sometimes,” especially when he is drunk, but I hardly found Astrov anything but likable throughout the entirety of the performance.
I was also startled by the lack of any real attempt to age these very young actors in middle-aged and very-aged roles. If an actor is not going to be aged with makeup, what can be done with physicality of movement or tone of voice that may better indicate, for example, that Vanya is 47 years old? There will always be a necessary suspension of disbelief when a young actor plays an older character, but there seemed to be very little focus on some very necessary aging.
This is not to say the production was without merit. Jordan Kramer and Christopher Sherwood Davis were convincing and natural; both possessed a deeper understanding of their roles within the society of the estate. Kramer was also a rather charming curmudgeon whose timid walk and “old man” voice did much to strengthen his character. Lawrence Fernandez created a good relationship with the audience which was perhaps slightly too informal for the general tone of the play, but made the audience feel very welcomed into this world from the moment he first picked up his guitar. He is also a very talented musician. Hannah Miner and Jacqueline Johnson demonstrated some nice tenderness in their scenes together, and Kat Webb had a real sweetness in her portrayal of Marina the nurse.
In general, it may have been a bit too ambitious for this very young company to tackle a work like Uncle Vanya at this point in their repertoire. The mission statement of the group focuses specifically on presenting 90-minute cuttings of Shakespeare “in beautiful outdoor spaces.” I actually think Uncle Vanya may have benefited from an outdoor setting to embrace the timelessness of country life. In any case, since Shakespeare’s works are so well-known and do lend themselves to more simply produced productions, it may be good for this company to stick to their original intentions as they hit their stride before branching out to other major works.