KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 2, 2001
Something old, something new: Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and Sledgehammer’s “Devil’s River.” In other words, a re-construction and a deconstruction.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, the 110 year-old Chekhov play is a modern tale, told in a crisply contemporary adaptation by playwright David Mamet. Robert Smyth, precariously balancing two different hats, serves as director and title character. His Vanya is a broken Everyman, put-upon and deluded, undergoing a midlife crisis. Everything is a bit damped down in this production, which completely captures the lassitude of these lives of quiet desperation but falls short in highlighting the humor. The piece proceeds at a languorous pace, though it’s not as lugubrious as some Chekhovian presentations.
Nick Cordileone fares best as the disillusioned doctor. Deborah Gilmour Smyth is engaging as the bored young wife of an aging intellectual sham, but she’s not quite the irresistible flame that draws all the rest of the moths perilously close, bringing a whole neighborhood to its knees. The remainder of the cast, like the design and technical support, are solid, if not stellar. The live musical accompaniment is delightful, if sometimes repetitive. Deborah Smyth adroitly arranged the traditional Russian folksongs and composed some new ones for the three onstage musicians.
Equally well-intentioned but also flawed is the ensemble-created premiere at Sledgehammer Theatre — “The Devil’s River,” conceived and directed by Kirsten Brandt. There’s more than a little disillusionment and despair here, too, in this demythologizing of the Old West. Snippets of stories and folktales, morals and amorality intertwine at a dizzying pace. The conceit doesn’t always work; the text is lightweight, but as so often at Sledge, it is subordinate to the look and feel of the piece. Brandt is a visceral, muscular director; her stage pictures are often glorious. But her storytelling is frequently so convoluted that the point is lost. A writer-editor would serve this production well; not all excellent ensemble actors do great playwrights make. The performances of Betty Matthews, Melissa Supera and Jessa Watson really do stand out, which maybe they shouldn’t in such a collaborative piece. The scenic design looks downright dangerous, but the lighting, costumes and sound are aptly evocative. There’s so much inventiveness here, it’s a pity so much is also lost in the myth-twisting miasma. But nobody even dares attempt what Sledgehammer does, and nobody does it better. More power to them… and more editing, too.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.