KPBS AIRDATE: March 14, 2003
By most accounts, and in most productions, Uncle Vanya is a depressive, a broken middle-aged man who has subordinated his own dreams and ambitions to providing support for his esteemed brother-in-law, a scholar he ultimately views as an intellectual sham. In the New Village Arts production, Vanya appears to be a rather young alcoholic with the DTs– a hyper, twitchy, sputtering, stuttering mess with so many tics and mannerisms he’s just about unwatchable. The irony is that this is a blatant imitation of the director’s acting style, twisted into caricature. The New Village artistic director, Fran Gercke, has a signature nervous energy onstage. Joshua Everett Johnson, apparently trying to emulate Gercke’s every agitated gesture, is in constant motion, so jittery he induces anxiety in the audience and distracts from his fellow actors. There’s no subtlety and no dramatic arc to his performance, and it shifts the whole focus of the piece, making the country doctor Astrov the central (and most compelling) character.
Overall, this production is filled with contradictions and incongruities; they may be intentional, but they’re often disconcerting. The all-white, suggestive set is minimalist and nearly futuristic, though the costumes are strictly 19th century. The music (played by Paul Woodrum) morphs from American country-folk at the outset to Slavic during the show. The lighting has all the shadows and silhouettes of a candle-lit Russian country house, but Jeff Jones’ sound is abstract and symbolic. The acting is also variable and lacks a cohesive style. There’s a palpable sexual energy between Matt Scott’s doctor Astrov and Jennifer Austin’s pretty, flirtatious Yelena, though he laughs a lot for a disillusioned idealist, and she has more stage business and less indolence than the irresistible character requires. As her husband, Charlie Riendeau is not as pompous or demanding as one would expect of an ailing old professorial geezer who makes everyone’s life miserable in his visit to the family home. Julianna Lorenz is perfectly plain and heartbreaking as poor hard-working, lovesick Sonya, pining for the doctor who never notices her, but the secondary characters are fairly flat and ill-defined.
In its first several efforts, the fledgling North County company repeatedly hit the mark with outstanding productions. Chekhov would seem to be an ideal match for the talented co-founders, Gercke and his wife, Kristianne Kurner, whose training at the prestigious Actor’s Studio is rooted in the ‘Method acting’ developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, “Vanya’s” first director. In this play about lassitude, decay and quiet desperation, many productions are overly lugubrious. This one errs in the opposite direction; although there are some poignant moments, parts of it are so wired that the whole lacks sufficient gravitas. But this new translation by Curt Columbus makes the tale of family deception and frustrated love comprehensibly clear and painfully timeless.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.