Vanya at CalShakes

Wednesday night Dave and I saw the first preview of CalShakes’s Uncle Vanya. What a pleasure it is to see Chekhov and Ibsen now and then performed by people who get the humor! A couple of seasons ago there was that terrific The Master Builder at the Aurora Theater, and now this production. Even one actor in common — James Carpenter played Holness in Master Builder and he plays horrible old narcissistic professor in Vanya, and I can’t remember seeing him be as funny before. There’s Barbara Oliver in common, too — she founded the Aurora, and she plays Marina, the old family nanny, here, with a brilliant deadpan singlemindedness. I have no idea why the sight of her simply walking across the stage with such concentrated determination just so she can fuss with the samovar and the teacups made me laugh out loud, but it did.

Dan Hiatt as Vanya is giving the best performance I think I’ve ever seen from him, and that’s saying a lot. But really, the whole cast is spot on, every character very touching and recognizably human and a little bit crazy.

As is the production, which is full of humor. Chekhov’s characters love to piss and moan about how hopeless life is and how trapped they are in their situations, which has led a lot of directors and actors to play them as bleak. But Chekhov always, always took great pains to show us as well that the cages his characters complain so incessantly about being trapped inside were built by them themselves, that the bars are made of papier-maché, that the construction is so flimsy that one good knock would bring the thing down, and anyway the doors are all unlocked and wide open. If a character in Chekhov says she has no choice, it is a safe bet that within half a minute somebody will offer her a perfectly good alternative and she herself will come up with a lame excuse why she can’t take it. If somebody says he can’t take any more and he is going to leave immediately, you know he’s going to jump at the first possible pretext to stay. On the comics page this morning I saw at least three strips whose punchlines turn on precisely this structure, and nobody would have any trouble seeing the humor in it, but for some reason you give your characters Russian (or Norwegian) names and it’s suddenly grim, deadly serious stuff.

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