Each year over the holidays and through January, Blackbird Theatre stages a work of classical theatre in Vancouver – and while over the years the plays have been staged with a varying degree of success, it is always a welcome antidote to the inevitable sugar plum fairy sweetness of the time of year.
This year’s offering is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In his masterful tragicomedy, published in 1897, the oppressive ennui of life on a Russian country estate at the turn of the last century is shaken up by the arrival of the landowner’s new, young, beautiful wife. This leads to heartbreak on several fronts that is so intense, the stifling boredom begins to feel like an old friend, a refuge the anguished can only hope to recapture.
In an inspired move, director John Wright (Blackbird’s artistic director), has set the production in the round, in the main theatre space at the Cultch in Vancouver. The effect is to draw the audience into the bourgeois tedium, where we become fly-on-the-wall witnesses to the clandestine confessions of love but, even more to the point, this kind of stifling life.
The play is set on a country estate owned by retired art professor Alexander Serebryakov (Duncan Fraser), a widower who has returned after a long absence from Moscow with his 27-year-old wife, Yelena (Luisa Jojic). For years, the estate has been managed by Vanya (Anthony F. Ingram), brother of the professor’s first, deceased wife. Vanya has been running the estate with Sonya (Cherise Clarke), the professor’s daughter from his first marriage, and thus Vanya’s niece. Both have sacrificed all through the best years of their lives to keep the estate running – hard work which has elicited little reward, including recognition from Serebryakov.
Vanya falls hard for Yelena, 20 years his junior. Astrov (Robert Moloney), the local doctor, also falls for her. Frustrated with his lot in life and anxious for the forests of Russia, Astrov becomes a regular visitor to the estate as a result of Yelena’s presence. This very much upsets Sonya, who is deeply in love with Astrov, but whose plain looks have meant he has failed to notice her. The fact that she must now confront this unrequited love daily – and be witness to his obvious feelings for her beautiful, young stepmother – is destroying her.
Moloney is a standout in this production, with a performance that is at once bitingly serious, very funny, and utterly believable. The chemistry between his Astrov and Jojic’s Yelena is palpable.
Clarke is wonderful as the weepy Sonya – managing to elicit laughs with her frequent tears at the same time as she embodies the play’s greatest tragedy: a woman of intelligence, fortitude and goodness who has no options, because she is plain and female. A woman whose only hope is to shield herself from stinging pain by banishing the doctor from the estate, and wait for the monotony to set back in and replace the acute despair.
Ingram’s Vanya is volatile and prone to eruption, so much so that the intensity of his anguish seemed to overshadow this great love he is supposed to feel for Yelena. I also wondered about what appeared to be the absence of profound feelings on the part of Fraser’s Serebryakov for his young bride – including jealousy, as these other men moved in. Even with its farcical moments, the play requires evidence of genuine emotion to succeed.
And this production does succeed, for the most part. Using a new literal translation by UBC Russian scholar Peter Petro, it’s a taut examination of the human condition which feels very contemporary – especially with the subplot involving Astrov’s deep concern for the disappearing forests of Russia. (And note that Blackbird is planting one tree for every ticket sold through the run, through Trees for the Future.)
While at times one may become annoyed with all the privileged whinging, it is at the same time understandable in the context of the inertia of this kind of life. What kind of options were there for these people – the women, in particular? One could not change one’s station in life, or the look of one’s face. These people were powerless. In this intimate staging, we are drawn into this societal mess in a powerful way.
It stays with you beyond the intimacy of the theatre. As I walked home, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of such physically and emotionally fragile people two decades hence, when revolution shook their worlds and brought about a kind of change they could have never imagined.