Saturday, January 10, 2009

The once and future avant-garde

That other "art theatre" in the original production of Uncle Vanya.

Sometimes I feel that there is a specter haunting the Boston theatre - the specter of Bob-Brusteinism. How else to explain the wackily bad production of Uncle Vanya now being promulgated by the new Boston Art Theatre? You want desperately for these young actors to succeed, because they're talented, and in the time-honored way of actors everywhere, they're taking a risk with their parents' funds and their friends' furniture. And of course they're innocently pretentious (the "Boston Art Theatre"? Why not "Stanislavski Presents!"?). So you don't even care that they've sliced and diced the text so they can get through the play without the full cast it requires; you came prepared for such necessities. You only hope they connect.

But then you realize that two of them - the core of the company, it seems - went to the ART Institute for Very Advanced Theatre, and you perceive that they're stuck in an academic straitjacket, and you're in for an evening of avant-garde waxworks. And your heart slowly sinks, because nothing is deader than yesterday's radical gestures - particularly these radical gestures, which seem to totter in like some Frankenstein's monster stitched together by Andrei Serban and Peter Sellars.

Admittedly, today this stuff could work as camp - the disco ball, the cello solo, the blaring rock music, the Che Guevara beret - but you can't help but face the fact that these kids really mean it; they're simultaneously impersonating Julian Beck and Judith Malina and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. And you want to tell them, guys, guys - you're not at Harvard anymore. At the ART, the emperor may have no clothes, but he's got a $32 billion endowment - all the more obvious when he's nude - so everybody plays along. But out here in the real world, just getting in is no longer enough.

And another word of advice - if you want to do something radical, by all means do it (just remember that successful radicalism is quite a challenge). But if you don't actually have anything new to say, then don't recycle the past and still expect a gold star, because there's no professor out here to accept the flattery you intend. In short, better you should try to convey Chekhov's century-old insights than re-enact the postmodern detritus of the 70's and 80's. Because that stuff was never intended to be coherent; it was essentially a political, not an aesthetic, gesture, aimed at the bourgeoisie, or the people who hadn't contributed to MOMA, or whomever. Today the challenge of radicalism is not to tear things down - because it's all been torn down - but to create something that actually hangs together, and preferably as brilliantly as Uncle Vanya does, all by itself.

Indeed, I could point out that the play's themes have their own meta-resonance, because Chekhov's thoughts on man's destructive impulses extend directly to the history of his own work at the hands of his self-appointed saviors. But instead I'll simply note that even without all the expressionism interlarded with the surrealism layered on top of the naturalism, Uncle Vanya is in truncated shape here, because adapter - and director and star - Robert Kropf has eliminated all the minor roles (perhaps because he couldn't find folks to do them for free) and foisted their stage business onto the major players. Thus it is Sonya, and not Marina, who inexplicably ignores Astrov's return to alcoholism; and it's Astrov, not Telegin, who's prone to playing melancholic guitar. And at a volume, btw, which renders the closing gambit of the act (in which the controlling Professor insists no music be played) completely absurd - hence, perhaps, Kropf deletes the actual lines. Likewise, Astrov doesn't have feelings of love for his old nurse - because she isn't there - but instead insists on a fine bro-mance with Vanya, who therefore seems oddly tongue-tied when his soulmate tries to hide the salami with his own beloved.

So only about two-thirds of the play makes emotional sense in this free-form "adaptation." Even that would be enough, however, if fine performances distracted us from all the loose ends. And, to tell the truth, there IS one such performance - Stacey Fischer alone might entice a Chekhov aficionado to check out this show: she makes a striking, and often compelling, Yelena. Indeed, she brings almost too much languid eloquence and depth to the role, so that when Chekhov pulls us back to the character's superficiality, we feel slightly jarred. (And she only went to Emerson!) Of course perhaps glib contrarianism counts as the production's strategy - here, the ornery Professor is a soft-spoken pussycat, the motor-mouthed Astrov is a subdued slacker, and Sonya shrugs off her supposed heartbreak without missing a beat. As a result, the characters are often left describing emotional situations which the actors simply aren't enacting, so they sound almost delusional.

Still, the performers generally have talent and presence - most are Equity - and when Fischer's around, most of their performances improve, too (especially Kropf's own); that's just not enough to compensate for all this misguided direction. To be fair, I had a more mixed opinion of Justin Campbell's Vanya - strip out the cello and the funny hats, and insert some internal discipline, and the performance might have some possibilities.

Or then again maybe I'm just grasping at straws. True, the production is free - so you're not risking any dough by seeing it, and perhaps the actors need an audience beyond their own social circle to perceive that what they're doing isn't working. On the other hand, by the final curtain, you may feel they owe you some money. This production also marks the beginning of a kind of unofficial "Month-o-Chekhov" here in Boston, during which you can see three of the four major works in as many weeks: the Nora will essay The Cherry Orchard beginning Sunday, and of course the ART takes up The Seagull next week (it gave its audience the bird once before, in 1991). So I'm hoping this turkey won't prove an omen.

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