By Anton Chekhov. Literal translation by Peter Petro, edited for performance by Errol Durbach and John Wright. Directed by John Wright. A Blackbird Theatre production. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Friday, December 27. Continues until January 18
How do you reconcile tragedy and farce? Ask a Russian.
In Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which was first produced in 1899, all of the main characters long for love and meaning. Their pursuit of both is so clumsy that the play is hilarious: attempts at adultery peter out in fumbling; bad marksmanship derails would-be murder. But there’s no denying the underlying pain.
When the retired Professor Serebryakov arrives on the Serebryakov country estate with his gorgeous, much younger wife, Yelena, they stir up the cruellest emotion: hope. The idealistic doctor Astrov, who starts visiting regularly to treat the Professor’s gout, quickly becomes smitten with Yelena. Sonya, the Professor’s daughter by an earlier marriage, falls desperately in love with Astrov, but she’s plain so he barely notices. Like Astrov, Sonya’s Uncle Vanya also yearns for Yelena, but, unlike Astrov, he doesn’t stand a chance with her. And Vanya gets the play named after him because his eventual disappointment is so complete. For years, he and Sonya have been managing the family estate in order to fund the Professor’s academic career, which Vanya once thought brilliant. In middle age, however, he sees the Professor’s writing as hollow and unoriginal. Stymied both romantically and philosophically, Vanya decides that his life has been a meaningless waste: he becomes murderously—and suicidally—depressed.
The play’s humour arises from the sheer vivacity with which its characters pursue their hopeless goals. Director John Wright’s production for Blackbird Theatre gets a lot of this right.
One of its chief successes is Robert Moloney’s wonderfully unleashed performance as Astrov. When this Astrov gets drunk, he gets so loaded that he does a Cossack dance and, sexually, he approaches Yelena with all the restraint of a horny 19-year-old.
Duncan Fraser brings similar depth of passion to his work as the Professor. As the character rails about how poorly he’s treated, Fraser clearly reveals both Serebryakov’s narcissism and pain.
Cherise Clarke’s Sonya also successfully straddles the line between tragedy and farce. When this lovesick girl bursts into tears, which she does often, you can’t help but laugh—and feel for her. Still, sharper physical focus would strengthen her performance.
Luisa Jojic (Yelena) overarticulates, which can make her delivery sound phony. And sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s the character or the actor that’s posing. But often, Jojic is emotionally right on the money. She nails the passage, for instance, in which Yelena talks about just how second-rate she is, and she’s funny in a maddeningly flirtatious scene with Astrov.
Anthony F. Ingram’s Vanya is less successful. His delivery tends toward grandstanding. And on opening night, in Vanya’s confrontation with the Professor, Ingram hit a high pitch of rage early and just kept banging on the same note after that. The most touching element in Ingram’s portrait is his embodiment of the physical pain of depression.
Wright’s production isn’t completely consistent, and it doesn’t aspire to great daring or originality, but it does realize enough of the play’s enormous potential to make it worth seeing.