Truly, it is one of the best Russian theatres, while its performances – ‘Onegin’ by Pushkin and ‘Uncle Vanya’ by Chekhov – are pieces of art that should be addressed as PIECES OF ART, in capital letters (excuse me for being pathetic). They turned inside out these well-known masterpieces pf the Russian classical literature learnt by school children. ‘See it and die’, it is said about ‘Uncle Vanya’ staged by Rimas Tuminas. The show is nine years old but it alive, full of new values, and very timely. It keeps rhythm like good watch, it attracts one’s attention, has no failures, but there is no feeling of wonkiness. Simply, actors live on stage as they breathe.
Pure brilliance was formed last night in the John Bassett Theatre, when the intense text of Anton Chekhov met the meticulous techniques of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. I am most certain that Rimas Tuminas’ direction of Uncle Vanya, in addition to the roaring sound of applause, summoned both Vakhtangov and Chekhov from the grave to admire this true piece of art.
Uncle Vanya, a slice-of-life play focusing on the absurdity of life, contains many drawn out dialogues, which requires the strictest focus and appreciation. The Vakhtangov Troop helps the audience relate to such absurdity through grand emphasis on movement, action, and specific conduct. A true sign of this production’s success is the audience’s consistent nervous laughter whenever such a combination would occur. It shows that the Vakhtangov Troop touched the very essence of human psychology, whereby discomfort draws us to dispel our discomposure with petty laughter.
Most notable was the interaction between Uncle Vanya (Sergey Makovetskiy) and his niece, Sonya (Maria Berdinskikh). These two characters represent the same ideology, but from two distinct generations. Both Vanya and Sonya want something more in life: they want to spread meaning, love, and beauty, instead of dealing with the monotonous pangs of daily work. However, Vanya is old. He has spent twenty-five years working the Estate’s fields, ensuring that The Professor (Vladimir Simonov) has enough money for his works and research. Sonya, on the other hand, is still a young girl with naïve ambitions.
With this construct in mind, it was amazingly powerful when Berdinskikh gave the play’s closing speech. As Uncle Vanya complains one last time about how tired and miserable he has become, Sonya grabs him by the collar and gives the most heart-wrenching speech of her acknowledged despair: about how she too lives miserably, though she never gives up hope that, someday, God will smile upon her and she will rest.
The remarkable beauty of Berdinskikh and Makovetskiy’s interaction in this scene lies with their use of the Vakhtangov absurdity. During her speech, Berdinskikh incorporates vivacious movements by swinging her arms and jumping on the table, among other actions, while Makovetskiy stays completely still. After her speech, Sonya rises, pulls Uncle Vanya onto centre stage and tries to dance with him. But Vanya is stiff – almost robotic.
In that stiffness and purposeful manner, Makovetskiy represents how empty Uncle Vanya has become, that despite even the most powerful of speeches, he remains cold. And when Sonya gives up, lying stretched-out on the table, he slowly and robotically walks backwards, disappearing into darkness.
Adomas Yatsovskis’ construction of the stage helped with more than just this scene. Relatively simple in its substance, with a couch at stage left and a wooden table with chairs at stage right, the ingenuity of this stage came from Maya Shavdatuashvili’s lighting. The stage front was illuminated, so as to create a shadowy backdrop; this way, when characters would appear or disappear, they would do so almost stealthily, without attracting too much attention.
I strongly recommend this production to everyone. Although it is entirely performed in Russian, there are running subtitles above the stage, making it easy for English-speaking audiences to follow.
A forlorn trumpet heralds the start of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, now playing just four performances at New York City Center as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival. Lethargic strings haltingly join in as Doctor Mikhail Astrov (Artur Ivanov) stares upstage into the void. This is the adagio of his life — the long period of cautious predictability before a manic final movement that will send him to the grave. This musical motif returns regularly in director Rimas Tuminas’s boldly stylish staging of this story of crestfallen Russians in love.
It takes place on the country estate owned by Professor Serebryakov (Vladimir Simonov), who inherited the property from his late wife. Her brother, Vanya (Sergey Makovetskiy), and daughter, Sonya (Maria Berdinskikh), have maintained the property faithfully for many years while sending the meager profits to Serebryakov. But the professor has returned with his new wife, Elena (Anna Dubrovskaya), right as Vanya has realized that his entire life has been wasted serving a mediocre academic. Making matters worse, Vanya’s own mother (Liudmila Maksakova) seems to like her son-in-law more. When the professor decides he wants to sell the house and convert the proceeds into bonds to support a life in the city, Vanya snaps.
Meanwhile, Astrov longs for Elena, but Sonya pines after Astrov. None of them are satisfied with their lives, not even the ostensibly well-off professor, who looks down his nose at these country bumpkins (Simonov keeps us laughing with his elderly man-baby routine).
As with his excellent staging of Eugene Onegin, Tuminas fills the production with music and ritual. Hardly a minute passes that is not underscored by Faustas Latenas’s evocative original score, which runs the gamut from flirtatious to funereal. Tuminas often seems to be choreographing to this underscoring, precisely staging in a way that is more dramatic poetry than prose. His approach is somewhat similar to the „memory play“ concept of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, in which elements are accentuated depending on their staying power in the mind of the narrator.
Adomas Yatsovskis’s set features just the furniture that would leave the most lasting impression: a dusty piano, a large stone lion statue, a leather hallway sofa. Yatsovskis’s costumes blend eras and styles to offer a sense of the character without overly specifying the period. Maya Shavdatuashvili’s dreamy lighting gives everything the feel of a hazy recollection.
It is an admirable and daunting task to pull Chekhov out from under the long shadow of Stanislavski’s naturalistic staging (the great Russian acting teacher directed the original production while also playing Astrov). Unfortunately, in many key passages of the play, Tuminas has not replaced it with something sturdier. His expressionistic staging works best when it is doing the least: For instance, when Elena and Astrov converse, they stare directly out at the audience rather than each other, as if each was unable to conjure the painful memory of the other’s face.
Other moments are less effective: When Astrov takes Elena over his knee before jumping on top of her in the third act (an exaggeration of the typical kiss and embrace) the scene loses its surreptitious allure. Astrov later carries Elena across the stage like a rag doll and places her on Vanya’s lap, seemingly a comment on how Russian machismo degrades and humiliates women. It’s a valid point, but the way that it is performed comes across like a first choice from a scene study in which actors are tasked with finding the essence of the moment; it’s not a finished product. Worse, it shifts Astrov from being a tree-hugging country doctor into someone more closely resembling a brutish bouncer brooding outside a nightclub.
Some of this has to do with Ivanov, who is a lot younger and ruddier than the typical Astrov. He delivers his lines in a menacing deadpan, as if he is trying to preserve energy by not moving. Still, Ivanov’s age serves to augment Astrov’s tragedy: There is something terribly sad about someone so young and healthy having such a dim outlook. As the servant Efim (a mime-like Sergey Epishev) loads him down with traveling cases like a pack horse, we feel the burden of his despair.
Maria Berdinskikh gives one of the other standout performances of the show. At one point, as she was sobbing about her inability to get Astrov’s attention, a man in the audience began cruelly laughing. Berdinskikh looked straight at him as she delivered the line, „I am plain. I know it.“ It is always exciting to watch an actor like Berdinskikh seize such opportunities to create a thrilling live experience.
Certainly, many theatergoers will purchase tickets to see Makovetskiy, a major star of Russian stage and film. He gives a heartrending portrayal of a broken man, traveled too far down a road to go back again. The final scene, in which he just looks at the floor as Sonya talks of their reward in heaven, is absolutely devastating.
Not all of Tuminas’s choices are as powerful, but the daring and inventive Vakhtangov staging of Uncle Vanya makes a good argument for the durability of Chekhov. These plays are so rich with humanity that it is easy to see new things in every new production.
If you think that theatre has nothing to surprise you, try ‘Uncle Vanya’. If you believe that you know nothing about the theatre, bravely go and see ‘Uncle Vanya’. The show which lives on stage for eight years, is a real Vakhtangov miracle.
We see a melodrama which continually turns to burlesque. Imagine a combination of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa not with Giacomo Puccini but with Kay Scarpetta. Actors play naturally and magnificently, the starring ones have to be mentioned first of all: Sergey Makovetsky (Uncle Vanya), Anna Dubrovskaya (Elena), Maria Berdinskikh (Sonya), Vladimir Vdovichenkov (Astrov), Bladimir Simonov (Serebryakov). At the end of the show, long applause mix with the quire of voices chanting ‘Bravo’. Thus, the Napoli Theatre Festival got the best closer one can only imagine.
Due to its lightness, ‘Uncle Vanya’ is a perfect plot for staging modern performances combining various styles: it is an ideal materials for the show staged by Maestro Tuminas, this full of energy symphony of life.
There is one mysterious element which is present in all Chekhov’s stories and which we used to consider as strange pictures with no double value. Today it perfectly harmonises with the modern theatre tendencies. I mean the fine irony which in some scenes, borders with sudden comic effects and brings surprises.
A team of fantastic Vakhtangov theatre actors galvanise ‘Uncle Vanya’. In the show staged by Tuminas, the bitterness washes ashore like lava. The trademark of Rimas Tuminas — the continuous weightless presence of music — turns each sentence into a strong melody: a morning serenade, a sorrowful song, or a hymn of joy. And above all, there are daemonic theatre findings!
It is a very talented, homogeneous, tragic but musical interpretation of the play. I am charmed, in Geneva, we have not been enjoying theatre so much since long ago. Congratulations on your tremendous success!
Best trend: The Russian invasion, with the brilliant Vakhtangov Theatre’s Measure for Measure and Uncle Vanya in London, and another Muscovite troupe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) in Stratford and Edinburgh.
‘Uncle Vanya’ staged by Rimas Tuminas is daring and provocative; it offers an unusual view on the family drama written by Anton Chekhov. This ‘Uncle Vanya’ does not simply makes you feel a compassion, it strikes you with its ascetism, and sometimes makes you wonder why you don’t understand it. Nevertheless, this poetic theatre creation worth all possible awards. This ‚Uncle Vanya‘ is not the cosy sort of Chekhov that made his plays British favourites, with their tea, petty conversation and the suffocating ennui of the rural bourgeoisie. In director Rimas Tuminas‘ production, there is no samovar and not a lace doily in sight. But the show is full of touching humor presented in a keen and delicate way.