Saturday, September 1, 2012

Where Have You Gone, Uncle Vanya?

This is a considerably longer version of a column I wrote for the end of August, which was postponed due to space considerations until the Sept. 6 North Coast Journal.  But since the new theatre season is getting started by then, I thought I'd post this now, the traditional last weekend of summer.

As the 2011-12 theatrical season was ending, I took the opportunity to set aside the year's musicals, contemporary comedies and clown shows, for some different theatrical experiences.  Unfortunately my travel budget doesn’t even extend to Oregon, so I must bring contrasting productions home, where I can travel in time as well as space.

My interlude started when I ran across a movie version of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov on Turner Classic Movies. Featuring a young Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner, and James Mason in his prime, it is a luminous film directed in 1968 by Sidney Lumet. More famous for such movies as Dog Day AfternoonNetwork and The Verdict, Lumet also made definitive film versions of a number of plays, including O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, as well as 12 Angry Men and Equus.  Still, he regarded this as his best film (the TCM introducer said.)  TCM seems to be the only place it's available.

This prompted a kind of longing, especially when I realized that I hadn’t seen a Chekhov play ever on the North Coast, nor given the present configurations and situations of theatres here, is it ever likely I will. I checked around, and nobody could remember one here for maybe 25 years. Director, actor and professor James Floss recalled Pacific Art Center Theatre productions of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters (with Terry Desch, Toodie Dodgen and Bonnie Bareilles,) both decades ago.

  It doesn’t take long for conversations with veteran North Coast actors to turn to the late lamented Pacific Art Center Theatre. It’s clear now that it left a niche in the local stage ecology that’s never been filled, not just for Chekhov but an array of classic modern playwrights.

I’ve seen Three Sisters on stage at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and two productions of The Cherry Orchard: one by Bulgarian-born director Mladen Kiselov at Carnegie Mellon University, and one at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007, directed by Libby Appel, who did The Seagull at OSF this season.  I also was dramaturg for a production of several of Chekhov's short plays, directed by Margaret Thomas Kelso at a small college in central Pennsylvania where she taught before coming to HSU.

But the Chekhov play that grabbed me this summer was Uncle Vanya. Coincidentally (I later discovered on the Internet) there were two productions of Uncle Vanya in New York City this year, including a much-praised one at Lincoln Center featuring the film star Cate Blanchett, produced by her theatre company. Insert Chekhovian sigh here.

  My explorations were instead via DVD and VHS. I started with August, the 1996 film directed by and starring Anthony Hopkins. It transposes Uncle Vanya to Hopkins’ native Wales, pretty much intact. (It features Kate Burton, daughter of another famous Welsh actor, Richard Burton.) Outside the Russian milieu but in a corresponding context, it illuminates aspects of the play more sharply for English and American audiences. (Hopkins also composed the music.)

Next was Vanya on 42nd Street, the 1994 Louis Malle film of a production directed by Andre Gregory, starring Wallace Shawn (reuniting the trio that did the cult favorite My Dinner With Andre) and Julianne Moore, with lovely performances by Brooke Smith, Larry Pine, George Gaynes and Phoebe Brand.

The conceit here is that we’re witnessing a group of actors who’ve been exploring the play for many months in an abandoned old theatre. It starts with them arriving for a run-through, chatting with a few invited audience members, then with each other. And eventually you realize that this chat has actually become Chekhov—the play has started. Actor Peter Ustinov remarked that Chekhov’s characters are so self-absorbed that they don’t really relate to each other, and so the actors are all soloists. But in this intimate and low-keyed version, the actors and their characters do relate dramatically, even beyond a New York manner of exchanging accounts of their obsessions. It's a little like Chekhov as a Woody Allen movie.

This Vanya uses the adaptation by playwright David Mamet, as does a 1991 BBC version with Ian Holm, David Warner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio which I’ve watched several times. Mamet gave the late 19th century dialogue a contemporary cadence, sharpening the humor and at times seemingly highlighting the relevance.  It's apparently the thing to do to use a new translation or version for a new production of any Chekhov, and a number of notable playwrights have done one or more versions, including Tom Stoppard.  Both Stoppard and Mamet have apparently done The Cherry Orchard, though I've seen or read neither.  (Stoppard's The Sea Gull is published in his collected works.)

The most startling contemporary relevance in Mamet's Uncle Vanya, is a speech by Doctor Astrov, who is passionately committed to saving the disappearing forest, partly because it moderates the climate:

“We have destroyed the forest, our rivers run dry, our wildlife is all but extinct, our climate ruined...but I pass by the woods I’ve saved from the ax. I hear the forest sighing...I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. Perhaps the climate itself is in our control.”

It's startling of course because Chekhov was writing in the late 19th century, and people in our century are facing the consequences of ignoring even contemporary warnings.  But in the context of the play, it especially emphasizes for us now the themes of  dashed potential and waste throughout this play, and other Chekhov plays.  It also reflects Chekhov's including the future in the thoughts of a character in several plays.

So why multiple Vanyas, one after the other? Besides seeing and hearing how each of these great actors play these roles, there’s the experience of structure—not in the way directors may analyze it, but more like the way actors feel it. Acting in the same play multiple times in a run provides a unique sense of the play’s structure. Actors may see the play from their character’s point of view, but they experience the rhythm of it through their actions, their entrances and exits, and even where they take breaths. The structure of a Chekhov play in particular is difficult to absorb in a single performance, but it’s there. 

In 1958, the Moscow Art Theatre--originally, Stanislavsky's theatre that made Chekhov's plays famous--brought three of their latest Chekhov productions to London, where the great Kenneth Tynan reviewed them.  In considering the character of Uncle Vanya, Tynan zeroes in on his dignity.  "He clings to it even in the shooting spree, which becomes in its mad way a matter of honour, an assertion of principle rather than a display of temperament; and in tenacity like this there is a kind of heroism."  The actor's characterization in this production reminds Tynan of Don Quixote.  "This Vanya always looks capable of tragedy; his tragedy is that he is capable only of comedy."  This sense of Vanya does come out in these productions, particularly as played by Anthony Hopkins.

This Mamet version with Ian Holm is included in The Anton Chekhov Collection from the BBC, a multiple DVD set I've had on my Wish List for awhile and finally broke down and bought for myself.  There's also a 1970 production with Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Astrov, as well as a 1974 production of The Wood Demon, with Ian Holm.  This is an early version of Uncle Vanya with a lot of the same dialogue but very different structure.

There's something of a premiere here as well, of Chekhov's first known play, never produced in his lifetime.  Here it's called Platonov, starring Rex Harrison, broadcast in 1971.  It's long for Chekhov but much shorter than his original manuscript.  He wrote it in his 20s, about a kind of Russian provincial Don Juan.

There are several of Chekhov's early short comedies, including a one-act farce (The Wedding), in an English version by Eric Bentley.  Chekhov began as a writer of comic and satirical pieces for various periodicals, only gradually developing into the classic short story writer that made his literary reputation in Russia, and eventually worldwide. 

The first of Chekhov's great plays is The Seagull, represented here in a 1978 production, featuring Michael Gambon, Georgina Hale, Zoe Caldwell and Stephen Rea.  The ironies involved in Chekhov's experience with this play rival anything he wrote for the stage.  Early in this play, the son of a famous actress is staging an outdoor production of a play he's written, in revolt against the established theatre of his mother, and in favor of "new forms" for the future.  (This is a particularly effective scene in the Lumet movie, because Lumet could stage the outdoor scenes really outdoors.  This play within the play has the lake behind the country house as its backdrop, and Lumet shows us what this really looks like, with a makeshift stage in front of a real lake at sunset.)

But Chekhov's own new form of theatre had to undergo a year of struggle with official censors before it could be produced.  Then it opened with a theatre party celebrating a famous older actress who was not unlike the famous older actress in the play.  All her friends came, probably expecting to see her in the play.  But she wasn't, and it wasn't the kind of play she would have been in, or they were used to seeing.  So opening night was a disaster, and the production never recovered.  Chekhov vowed to give up the theatre forever.

But the Stanislavsky production two years later was a great success, and so Chekhov took another look at the manuscript for The Wood Demon, and quickly turned it into Uncle Vanya.

In this collection there's a 1970 production of Three Sisters with Eileen Atkins, Janet Suzman and Michele Dotrice (and I have another, an Actors Studio production, on VHS.)  There are two versions of The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's last play. He died of tuberculosis not long after it opened in 1904, at the age of 44.  This play in particular has been interpreted in many ways.  The BBC collection has a 1962 production with John Gielgud, who also did the translation.  It also features a very young Judi Dench.  The 1981 production stars Judi Dench in a different part, and it won her several awards.

I ran across this paragraph about that 1962 production, which like several of these BBC television versions, was first done on stage.  It's about John Gielgud. " During The Cherry Orchard he became a kind of father-figure to some of the younger actors. Judi Dench had been bullied and mocked by [director] Saint-Denis in rehearsal, and was extremely nervous on the first night. As she prepared to go on again after the first act, Gielgud told her: 'If you had been doing that for me I'd be delighted.' From that moment she played it for him, and settled into the role. Dorothy Tutin also remembers his warmth: 'John was very sweet with Judi and me on stage, the way he put his arms around us, the way he looked at us, always in tears. Although he wasn't usually a physical actor, he was with us, he looked upon and treated us as children, and it was easy to nestle up to him and put your head on his shoulder.' "     The next time I watch this, I'll be thinking of this observation.

This collection also includes the dramatization of a Chekhov short story starring Patrick Stewart, and a few radio plays and short story readings.  So at least the year ahead will not lack Chekhov (or Shaw--I just got his BBC collection), if only on my screens.

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