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Spotlighters Theatre Struggles With The Blank, Bleak World Of Uncle Vanya

The Simple Life: Robert Marshall and Laura Burggraf try to cope with life in the provinces in Uncle Vanya.

By John Barry | Posted 2/18/2004

Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov

Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through March 13

When Leo Tolstoy first saw Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya during its run at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, he was reportedly bored to tears. He had a point. The beginning of Uncle Vanya is boring, because it's about boredom. It's about people wasting away in the provinces. What keeps the play intact--although this one is very fragmentary to begin with--is the sense that there's something elemental and tragic brewing underneath this atmosphere of deadly calm. Spotlighters Theatre gives a solid performance of this classic but doesn't quite answer Tolstoy's question, which he is rumored to have shouted out at the end of the show: "Where's the drama?"

It's not in the plot itself. Act 1 opens on the estate of Alexander Serebryakov (Michael Keating), an elderly, bored, retired university professor. Vanya (Robert Marshall) is the 47-year-old brother of Serebryakov's first wife. He and his niece Sonia (Laura Burggraf) have been managing the provincial estate for most of their lives. Now that the professor and his young wife, Yelena (Marianne Angelella), have moved onto the estate, their routine has been disrupted. Vanya falls in love with Yelena, as does Dr. Mikhail Astrov (Mark Scharf), who has been sent to cure Serebryakov's gout. And Serebryakov wants to sell the estate.

The Spotlighters ensemble seems to focus on the high points of the Chekhovian drama--the prize monologues, the heart-wrenching goodbyes, the sudden explosions of temper. Yelena has to fend off Dr. Astrov's advances and tells him that she isn't going to leave her older husband. Angelella's performance is poised but powerful: She keeps the lid on her emotions, but feelings are boiling. Scharf, as Astrov, injects intensity into his role in his final encounter with Yelena. His Astrov seems to be a little more of a conventionally romantic figure than the drunken, disappointed doctor is usually shown to be.

Marshall's somewhat youthful version of Vanya, meanwhile, hits the right notes when he confronts Serebryakov, who has just decided to sell his estate. In an impressive performance, Keating's character manages to bulldoze Vanya with the full force of his contempt. The panic attack that ensues as Vanya tries to respond is impressively rendered.

But the drama of Chekhov can't be consigned to gunshots and wrenching monologues. In the initial, somewhat uneventful scenes, Chekhov is trying to capture the rhythms and speech of a life that he calls "bad and dreary." The cast is a little less focused at these moments, and the dark side of Chekhov is left unmined as the play takes on the directionless, blasé atmosphere of a family reunion. Maybe it's because things start off on the wrong foot with a "turn off your beeper" speech, delivered from the stage by the character Marina. That's undoubtedly meant to help the audience out, but it blurs boundaries and reduces tension in a play that requires extraordinary discipline among the actors. The occasional interjection of background music during monologues has a similarly distracting effect.

And one last inevitable problem: Any American director who takes on Chekhov has to make some hard decisions about how to perform a play that is essentially about a Russian way of life. Do you try to reproduce it faithfully, transplant it, or neutralize the Russian element? This particular production freely blends American accents, Russian props and characters, and dramatic mannerisms that seem at first to be drawing-room comedy. Uncle Vanya is about people who are wandering directionless. But when the actors seem unsure of where they're heading, or even what country they come from, the play loses a bit of whatever edge it has.

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