Monday, July 25, 2016

Shaw’s Uncle Vanya, an example of realistic theater at its finest

European theater in the mid-1800s centered on escapist comedies, entertainment for the upper classes.  Little which appeared on stage centered on the problems of the people. 

In the late years of the century Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Anton Chekhov started writing “slice of life” plays which showcased the issues of the people.  The movement of these three seminal figures was dubbed “modernism.”  Alternate titles for this “new” type of play were “theater of mood” and “submerged life in text.”

Anton Chekov, the author of Uncle Vanya, which is now in production at The Shaw Festival, was a Russian who wrote four major plays, each considered a classic.  He also wrote a series of pieces of short fiction and some minor theatrical works.

Interestingly, Chekov was trained as a medical doctor, not a writer.  He once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”   His medical practice funded his playwriting.

Chekov’s first major play, The Seagull, was panned by critics when it was staged in 1896.  But, it was revived in 1898 to great acclaim.  The difference, it seems was where it was staged and who directed it.  The latter production was performed by the Moscow Art Theatre, which subsequently staged his Uncle Vanya, as well as Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, all staged by Constantine Stanislavski.

Quotes from Chekov explain the concept of theatrical realism—“slice of life,” “Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are.”  “Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life.”  His use of language is often soliloquies to which no one on stage listens, punctuated by silence pauses and stillness.

When challenged for upsetting audiences by showcasing that the lives of upper-class theatre goers were a “wasted life,” Chekov insisted that “the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.”  He also felt that the arts were a means for change.  Since his plays foreshadowed the major changes that were about to take place in Russia, he is sometimes dubbed, “The literary father of the Russian Revolution.”

Uncle Vanya centers on the visit of an elderly professor and Yeléna, his beautiful young second wife, to an estate that supports their urban life style.  Vanya, brother of the Professor’s first wife, manages the estate and keeps it going.  Angst sets in when the Professor announces that he intends to sell the estate, thus setting Vanya, the staff and his family adrift.

The script showcases the frustrated hopes and the “wasted lives” of the characters.   It also looks at the outside forces affecting society.  The plays’ speeches about destroying the forest and the disappearance of birds and beasts is one of the first recorded theatrical passages about ecological problems.

The Shaw script was adapted by Annie Baker, working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina from the original Russian text.  It updates that language introducing such modern terms as “creep,” “guys,” “women’s liberation,” “climate control,” yet maintaining Chekov’s intentions of illustrating such concepts as “hopelessness, waste, boredom and suffocation, ” within a dialogue sprinkled with comic commentary.

The Shaw production , directed by Jackie Maxwell, is well paced.  The cast is universally excellent.  Patrick McManus as Astrov, Neil Barclay as Vanya, Moya O’Connell as Yelena and Marla McLean as Sonya all deliver textured performances.

Sue LePage’s representational set uses the small Court House Theatre’s thrust stage effectively.  Rebecca Picherack’s lighting enhances the production

Capsule judgment:  Jackie Maxwell’s direction of Chekov’s classic tragicomedy, Uncle Vanya, is filled with a focused  reflection of the hopelessness, waste, boredom and suffocating world of Russia in the late 1800s.   The quality cast and technical crew set the right tone for the required realistic aspects of the script.

Uncle Vanya is presented in the Court House Theatre, through September 11, 2016.

For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to