Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, directed by Erica Schmidt, at Bard Summerscape, 2008

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Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Bard, with Taylor Schilling, Kate Skinner, Peter Dinklage as Vanya

Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Bard, with Taylor Schilling, Kate Skinner, Peter Dinklage as Vanya

Uncle Vanya

by Anton Chekhov
Bard Summerscape
Fisher Center for the Arts, Theatre 2
July 16, continues through July 20

translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Erica Schmidt
Mark Wendland, set designer
Michelle R. Phillips, costume designer
David Weiner, lighting designer



Peter Dinklage – Vanya
Ritchie Coster – Astrov
Lynn Cohen – Marina
Robert Hogan – Professor Alexander Serebriakov
Taylor Schilling – Yelena
Mandy Siegfried – Sonya
Kate Skinner – Maria Vasilyeva
Robert Langdon Lloyd – Telegin (“Waffles”)

The core of Erica Schmidt’s brilliant production of Uncle Vanya is in fact its shell. On the impressively broad and deep stage of the Fisher Center’s Theatre 2, set designer Mark Wendland made an enormous room with a low ceiling, which was both desolate and claustrophobic. Most of the wall space is covered with peeling wall paper decorated with an endless forest of birch trees in autumn. This is broken only by a bay window toward the front right stage against which Vanya’s bed is crammed. This is the only furnished corner of the expanse, populated by a couple of desks, a cupboard containing food and drink, a table, a few chairs, and in the background—the outer reaches of this little solar system—there are an easy chair, a piano, and a television set with a pillow-shaped portable audio system atop it. The actors come and go through three doors. One front left, leads to the kitchen. Seemingly a football field behind it there is the door leading to the stairs and the bedrooms. On the back wall way over to the right we see the door leading to the vestibule, the way out into the open. In other words, the various settings of Chekhov’s four acts have been compressed into one. As they progress, we focus on particular parts of it, but never entirely forget about the whole. The vast, low ceiling is not only oppressive, it makes us wonder about the rooms upstairs and what goes on in them, when the characters, alone or in pairs, retire to them. (Eventually we learn a little about this.) When the lights are raised we see the local physician, Mikhail Lvovich Astrov, his head sunken into his arms on the table, with an elderly woman of humble and rustic appearance, the family nurse, Marina. We can barely see Vanya, who is asleep on his bed.

Erica Schmidt exploits the set’s expanse and the characters’ awkwardness, confusion, or drunkenness to introduce long pauses or to draw out a simple action to extreme length. This is not the ambiguous, multivalent pause of Harold Pinter and Jonathan Miller; it rather expresses the characters’ rooted despair and the futility of their situations. There is no way out for any of them. Nothing can change for them. They wander through this space like ghosts, seemingly meeting only tangentially, drawn to each other by some desire, attraction, or passion. None of these feelings overcomes anyone’s isolation or loneliness. While in Schmidt’s view most of the characters possess a certain inner warmth and attractiveness—even Yelena, the young trophy wife of the seemingly moribund professor, Alexander Vladimirovich Serebriakov (the only member of the family to possess no redeeming qualities at all), the overall mood of her production has all the numbing chill of ice cold vodka (On stage the characters drink theirs at room temperature.), This is reinforced by the constantly reiterated desire to get away from the dingy, rambling house which shelters this unfortunate family. I mean this as praise of course. In fact there is never a dull minute, and effortlessly so: the overall mood of despair is constantly enlivened by flashes of emotion, wit, and moral revelations or turnabouts. There is not only an eloquent art to the timing and rhythm of these movements and encounters but Erica Schmidt manages the mood and expression of the interchanges among her actors to perfection, revealing a sensitive ear for Paul Schmidt’s (no relation) up to date translation.

I should also add that this is one of the few productions I’ve seen this summer which appear to use no amplification, or so little that it is unnoticeable. In other words it’s real theater.

Soon enough we learn that the characters are divided into parasites and the exploited, and towards the end we gather that the situation—or the intense, unbearable part of it—is temporary. It lasts only as long as the parasites are physically present among the exploited, where they wield a certain glamour. (If Serebriakov’s has faded, Yelena’s, in ripening, is at its peak.) The old poseur, racked by real and imaginary ailments, lords it over the others by the sheer force of his ego, even though it has long spent itself and everyone, above all Vanya, knows him for a fraud. Serebriakov, a man of low background, somehow managed to get a university qualification and garnered a reputation as brilliant art historian. He married the daughter of a privy counselor, Vanya’s sister, now deceased, and, through his daughter, who is the true owner of the property, took everything he could from the estate and those who worked it, in particular his daughter Sonia and Vanya. However, now that he has retired, it does not provide enough for him to continue living in the city with Yelena, who clearly has expensive tastes of her own, as constantly demonstrated by her ever-changing urban—and throughly contemporary—wardrobe. From one moment to the next, her mind flits from boredom to the workings of her iPod to her next change of clothes. If she is a parasite on her husband or through him on the family of her predecessor, she is also a prisoner. We gather that she might have some hidden talent in music, if she could only touch the keyboard, but Alexander’s frail state and his studious life forbid it. Yelena accepts the niggardly hand she has been dealt, because she has made herself in it, and she is terrified of losing the status quo, however boring and demeaning it may be. At twenty-seven, she has lost all hope, just like Astrov at thirty-seven, and Vanya at forty-seven (forty-two in this production, presumably to accomodate Peter Dinklage, who is still under forty).

The events boil down to this. Astrov, who drinks, wants to get Yelena in bed, and Vanya is in love with her. The hopelessly plain Sonia loves Astrov and adopts Yelena as a confidante, which leads to a deliciously perverse love scene of sorts between Yelena and Astrov. Now Astrov is handsome and impresses all with the remnants of his youthful brilliance, which he now pours into the conservation of the local forests when he isn’t drunk. Vanya lacks Astrov’s looks, but we learn that he once had some charisma of his own, now worn down by the cares of the estate. His love for Yelena, which goes back some years, is enflamed into an obsessive rage by her extended presence on the estate. In fact it is the presence of the two parasites, which puts the time out of joint. The doctor’s passion for Yelena has aggravated his drinking, and both his patients and his trees are suffering because of it. Vanya has taken to drink as well. Neither he not Sonia can concentrate on their work, and things are slipping into chaos. While Yelena couldn’t wait to get away from the house from the beginning, it took Vanya’s passionate verbal attack and physical assault to get the professor to move. When they have gone—the two years between Vanya’s outburst and Act IV slip by almost unnoticed—things can return to normal. Sonia and Vanya, who has just come close to committing suicide, can go back to their accounts, and Vanya’s mother, Marina, and the hanger-on Telegin, about whom I have said little, can go back to their placid routine.

The cast is very strong indeed, and are all the better for Schmidt’s direction. In fact Peter Dinklage, who plays Vanya, is her husband, and the couple here work as a team for the first time. In this production, they have successfully balanced Chekhov’s textual reasons for Vanya’s sense of hopelessness and alienation with a physical difference, which isolates him further from the mass of humanity, above all Yelena, although his relations respect his intelligence and competence and admire him for what he might have been. Dinklage’s Vanya is a warm, emotional, even volatile man, notably younger than Vanya as written. His emotional outbursts may occasionally seem excessive, but, as Dinklage acts them, they are interesting and affecting. He is matched by the superb Ritchie Coster, who is familiar to Williamstown Theatre Festival audiences for his work in The Cherry Orchard. Mr. Coster commands a wonderful sense of posture and gesture, as well as an orchestra of color and nuance in his voice, not to mention charm and good looks to burn. His portrayal of Astrov the physician, replete with a enough imaginative psychological and expressive details to fill a novel, was a theatrical tour de force. Mandy Siegfried as Sonia also showed an impressive range of expression, all of it trained on her touching portrayal of Vanya’s homely and repressed niece and co-worker. Lynn Cohen was an affecting Marina, although she seems to possess a native urbanity which all the skill in the world could not repress. If it occasionally undermined her illusion, it added to her charm. Robert Langdon Lloyd seemed both natural and sympathetic as Telegin. Kate Skinner in the small, but striking role of Vanya’s bluestocking mother, seemed to get the character just right, as did Robert Hogan as the Professor, and above all Taylor Schilling as the odious and pitiful Yelena. A tall, slim blonde, looking very much the ex-model, she did an absolutely splendid job of projecting Yelena’s intellectual laziness, boredom, petulance, contempt for herself and for those who love her, and her general je m’en foutisme.

Today, its seems, directors and audiences have grown quite comfortable with mixtures of the author’s intended period and various anachronistic details. Actually this production was set in the present, as stated in the program, but the period feeling—the atmosphere of the remote country estate of Chekhov’s time—just wouldn’t go away, even if a tv set has replaced the samovar. The device was successful, because it didn’t deny the audience a feeling for the period and historical circumstances, while pointing moral and psychological particulars of the characters, as well as making us aware of the contemporary force of Chekhov’s views. Last year I indulged in a small binge of his stories, and I was constantly amazed by the awareness that Chekhov is showing us our own world. In Uncle Vanya, as in so many of other of his works, people find it impossible to fulfill the ambitions of their education, and they don’t have enough to do. Let down by an indifferent and corrupt government and society, they are beset with despair, as well as an alienation from each other and from society at large, whether they are related or in love, or just old friends. While the old Russian country estate has disappeared, posing art historians have not. In Uncle Vanya, the resources of the countryside and its people are being laid waste to maintain Serebriakov’s prestige and to keep Yelena in shoes. Why should contemporary Americans, who are never short of things to do, consider themselves young at sixty, and run themselves into the ground with optimism, as if you can find a meaning for your life with a quick Google search, feel anything in common with late Tsarist Russia? I can only ask you to answer it for yourselves.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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