“Love is a great thing. It is not by chance that in all times and practically among all cultured peoples love in the general sense and the love of a man for his wife are both called love. If love is often cruel or destructive, the reason lies not in love itself, but in the inequality between people.”
– Anton Chekov, Note-book of Anton Chekhov (1921)
Have you ever heard of someone being offended by an actor’s age? I’ve heard of folks taking umbrage with miscasting based on ethnicity (pisses me off all the time) and I do note whenever an actor is a different age than the playwright intended (I saw a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof some years ago which had a “Maggie” in her mid-to-late-40s), but I can’t recall anyone actually being offended by the latter. I just chalk it up to dumb casting.
I bring this up because last night I saw Cutting Ball’s new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. During the intermission I overheard two women sound off on the casting of young Adam Magill as Dr. Ástrov. They seemed personally attacked by the unmitigated gall of the theatre to cast Magill in the role. Granted, the doctor is written as being middle-aged, but these ladies sounded as if they wanted to boycott the company for the rest of its existence.
I’ve always liked Adam Magill, both as an actor and as (in all of my encounters with him) a genuinely nice person. Perhaps it was inevitable that his adorable good looks (this role required him to lose his signature curly-top and grow a horseshoe moustache) would get him into trouble. Still, I don’t think that alone is any reason to dismiss Cutting Ball’s new take on Vanya. The production makes plenty of other mistakes that have nothing to do with the babyfaced doctor.
Ványa has nothing but the house. The professor has everything except his health. The Dr. Ástrov has things of which he isn’t even aware. All three want Yeléna. In the decadent rural estate, the professor’s wife unwittingly becomes an avatar for success (or lack thereof) by everyone other than herself.
When the professor announces that he intends to sell the estate, passions flare and secret obsessions bubble to the surface. It seems that no one was truly happy with their current position in life, but they may be even less so before the weekend is over.
As with many shows I’ve seen lately, it should be pretty obvious as to why this classic was revived for the #MeToo era. Between female characters being object of the males’ lust (even as the females were teens), women trying to live up to absurdly high standards of beauty & grace, and the doctor’s self-inquiry “What will people think of us 100 years from now?”, Chekhov’s text is incredibly timely. Hell, when I saw Ványa splayed out on a chair (as shown in the photo above and poster at the top), I was immediately reminded of the reports of a certain now-disgraced Hollywood mogul’s infamous “hotel meetings”. The fact that he soliloquizes on how he feels entitled to Yeléna more than, y’know, her husband (the man she chose) says a lot about both Ványa and every guy who’s bemoaned the “friend zone” he’s imagined for himself because he doesn’t have the woman of his dreams.
In fact, what really lingered with me was looking at the relationship of Yelena and Sónya through modern eyes. In a patriarchal world where everyone is taught to hate women – primarily women themselves, who are taught to hate one another – the bonding scene between the two ladies has a poignance even contemporary plays and playwrights miss. Yeléna was taken by the professor’s fame and stature, leading daughter Sónya (who sees herself as “ugly” and “plain” when compared to the glamourous Yeléna) to dismiss the new wife as just some gold-digger. Watching them end their rivalry as they admit they never knew why they were rivals remains one of the text’s highlights.
Having said that, both the flaws and successes of this pretty well pronounced. Director Paige Rogers (one of Cutting Ball’s co-founders and its former artistic director) seems more concerned with making sure her actors always move rather than giving them a good reason to do so. Rather than a traditional European set, Fred Kinney’s minimalist design has two metal scaffoldings on either side with a large “Valby Ruta” Ikea rug running from one end to another. A retractable microphone hangs from the roof in front of each scaffolding. The scaffoldings are decorated with any number of drinking glasses, but they’re also used as a sort of jungle gym for the actors to climb about throughout the show. When the good doctor goes up and down one in the first scene, it’s just plain confounding, and it becomes more so as the show goes on. Then there are bewildering choreography choices, such as Sónya and the doctor’s awkward “dance” as she implores him not to drink. It all reeks of “trying to look art-y” without actually having the motivation to back it up.
Of the cast, Yeléna and Sónya (Virgina Blanco and Haley Bertelsen, respectively) are the stars of the show. The only thing better than waiting for them to appear in each scene is when they finally share their aforementioned scene together. That scene makes the best use of show’s inconsistent choice of microphones, and Bertelsen – who I think I’ve seen before – is able to personify the frustration of the professor’s daughter without resorting to that “entitled whining” you hear so much about in op-ed pieces these days. I can’t recall having ever seen Blanco before, but she personifies that famous Jessica Rabbit line we all know by heart. She brings a wonderful amount of heart to the professor’s trophy wife lusted over by the caretaker of the house. Plus, I saw the show on a night that would have flustered a lesser actor: despite her earrings flying off several times, Blanco never once so much as flinched, keeping the heart of Yeléna front-and-center. Well done.
In fact, all the women – including Nancy Sans’ “Nanny” and Miyoko Sakatani’s “Maman” make the play most worth watching. The men have considerably more trouble. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for Adam Magill and he’s decent here, but Rogers was unable to create any real chemistry between he and Blanco. When Yeléna and the doctor finally kiss, it’s less “sparks flying” so much as actors doing what the script has written down. Faring worse are actors Douglas Nolan and Georgle Saulnier as the professor and Ványa, respectively. Rogers seems to have directed them to simply be as melodramatic (ie. “loud”) as possible. Vanya in particular tended to foam at the mouth so much that one could easily mistake him for a US Supreme Court nominee. The shortest end of the stick goes to Merle Rabin as Ilya, whose delivery never rises above “script reading” level.
Although I wasn’t a fan of the way Fred Kinney’s set was used, I did appreciate its design. Combined with Ted Boyce-Smith’s lights and Stephanie Dittbern’s props, the scene transitions were always easy to follow, even when very little on stage would change. I’d be remiss not to mention Alina Bokovikova’s costumes. Given the doctor’s environmentalist tendencies, Bokovikova adorns him in specific Earth tones throughout. Similarly, Yelena is always dressed in primary blue, usually a gown of some sort, but I was a bit confused as to why her final costume made her look like a flight attendant? Still, Nanny’s oversized “bikini” t-shirt alone is worth the price of admission.
Uncle Vanya is a story about big reactions that grow from several small frustrations. Well, maybe the frustrations aren’t so small, but they definitely add up. So too did my frustrations with this production. By reputation, a Cutting Ball show tries to go against the grain when staging classic works, but it’s very easy for them to get lost in the proverbial woods. This is a show with lovely design and half an entertaining cast, but some questionable choices by the actors and director nearly sink the ship.
Uncle Vanya is scheduled to run until the 21st of October at The EXIT on Taylor in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours and 20 minutes with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.