If Chekhov could see this year’s production of “Uncle Vanya,” he would pat Peter Cook ’05 on the back for successfully realizing his vision. The actors of this year’s production of the play effectively evoke a strong emotional response as well as strike a funny note with the audience.
“Uncle Vanya” hasn’t been performed at Yale since 1997, when Alex Lippard ’97 attempted to direct the play. Last summer, three enthusiastic seniors — David Laufgraben ’04, Ian Lowe ’04 and Jennifer Thompson ’04 — conceived the idea of performing “Uncle Vanya” as their senior project and asked producer Lauren Stripling ’05 to participate. The result is a love for Chekhov translated into a full-fledged production of a celebrated modern classic chosen for its rich thematic material and complex characters.
“Vanya” illustrates a struggle between the desire for a hard-working life and the stagnation generated by inactivity, unfulfilled dreams and unrequited loves. Modern readers often find the collection of household episodes that make up Chekhov’s play dull. However, the inherent psychological and emotional drama is starkly exposed on stage, especially in Cook’s production of “Uncle Vanya.” The actors convincingly portray the characters’ deep-rooted tension and inner struggle through the masterful delivery of monologues and compelling discourse throughout the play. The very essence of Russian existence at the turn of the 20th century is revealed, analyzed and condemned as hopeless. The spinning of the web of tension keeps the viewers on edge until the end.
The play opens with Uncle Vanya (Lowe) lazily sprawled on a bench with a hat covering his apathetic face. Next to him sits a gray-headed nanny, sewing as she rhythmically nods her head. As the plot unwinds, the performance of Jennifer Jamula ’05, Uncle Vanya’s nanny, proves to be credible and genuine — a comforting and balanced element in the otherwise “haywire” atmosphere. Her gentle reminder that “they’re just geese cackling” soothes both Sonya (Zoe Kazan ’05) and the audience after a distressing scene. Lowe’s Uncle Vanya is a masterful portrayal of a man in despair seeking hope in a wasteland, while he himself wastes away philosophizing and drinking. He manages to accurately express excruciating self-pity, passionate love and borderline insanity while never losing a chilling half-rational, half-insane demeanor. His companion in misery is the local doctor (Laufgraben), an engaging and witty central character. The doctor delivers his monologues eloquently, but his courting of Yelena lacks some sincerity.
Thompson as Yelena skillfully presents an insolent damsel in distress. Her overall performance is befitting of the character, although a tad overdramatized at times. Kazan, the professor’s daughter, gives an admirable performance as the hopelessly starstruck lover, hurt yet defiant to continue living through work. In fact, the director cites one of her scenes as his favorite — Sonya’s flightiness naively turns into pure bliss when the doctor kisses her, but then her happiness is overshadowed when she realizes her plainness.
Her father, played by Yevgeny Gelfand ’05 –producing an impressive Russian accent — also fantastically showcases the professor’s intolerable arrogance mixed with self-loathing. In a powerful scene where he laments being “surrounded by stupid people” in the provincial town, he manages to convey the ambivalence between demanding respect and meekly pining for love.
Not to be dismissed, the minor roles are equally mastered. Overall, the actors get into character very well, and the casting is superb.
The play’s technical production only serves to add flavor. The props are sufficient and effective. The countless bottles of the professor’s medicines further highlight his hypochondriac neuroses, and the nanny’s adorable hospitality comes alive with her little tea set. Vodka, morphine and a gun, necessary plot elements, are also visible, much to the delight of the audience. The simple set, removable white sheets draped over walls, focuses the attention on the characters and their dialogues, concentrating the energy on the scene rather than outside of it. The moving of scenic elements, however, could have been executed more smoothly. The sounds used are subtle — soft tragic music playing in the last scene and the “surround-sound” clacking of the horses and tinkling of raindrops are effective.
The actors’ presentation of elderly characters is impressive. The viewer absolutely forgets these are college students performing. The play, from start to finish, is professional theatrical work and successfully overcomes the difficulties of performing Chekhov. You will not be disappointed and will leave the theater pondering the bigger questions of life and interpersonal relationships. After seeing the play, you will be convinced that, in the words of the doctor, “being a freak is a normal human condition.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1159″ ]