Jane

What was in your pockets?

 

Valancy

I’ve seen a few things at Quintessence and always have high hopes. I love the plays the choose. I also love Chekhov and was recently involved in a production of “Uncle Vanya” at another theatre — a different translation/adaptation.

 

Jane

I haven’t really seen Quintessence shows before. The only thing I have in my pockets right now is the discussion happening around the MarK Cofta review of this show, in which he says that the lack of ‘color blind casting’ is distracting. Did you read about this?

 

Valancy

 

I read the review and Alex Burns’ response to it and the question of “color blind” casting vs. “racially aware” casting.

 

Jane

It’s an interesting question, because I think both work. And I think that audiences can tell the difference. The production will give you a clue about whether race should be visible or invisible in the world of the play.

 

So, how did you experience the design?

 

Valancy

In terms of lights, there were two or three key moments that designer John Burkland chose to light as huge dramatic breaks from the rest of the action that struck me as discordant and not in keeping with the rest of the play. It’s far more effective if Yelena and Astrof kiss and you feel anyone could walk in at any moment, not that suddenly they’re on a different planet, separate from the rules and conventions of mere mortals. I found myself caring far less about their experience because I couldn’t relate to it.

 

Jane

I didn’t notice that, but it’s a good insight. Especially in a show about people who are trapped, and whose relationships offer no solace from that feeling of being trapped.

 

Valancy

Yes, and one of my continuing questions about “Uncle Vanya” is do these characters truly feel love, or are they seeking respite from the monotony of life? I always come back to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be left with the impression that this is a passion that would ever outlast the summer… it would offer another form of imprisonment.

 

Jane

That’s an important insight. And a sad one.

 

Valancy

One of Quintessence’s strengths is their use of original composition and music in their soundscape. Each scene break was punctuated by the workman, Yeffim’s, playing of jazz on the piano, composed by Randy Redd, which added to the melancholy mood of the production and gave one the sense of a passage of time. I also loved the understated realism of the birds chirping once the action began.

 

Jane

I liked the costume choices for Sonya. I think it’s such a romantic character that it’s easy to dress her as virginal and ethereal, not remembering that she’s a person who works with her hands. I thought the overalls reminded us that Sonya’s situation is tragic for class reasons. The doctor is never going to love her. When I’ve seen this show before, it’s always been with Sonyas whose natural beauty was elevated by the production. It’s still sad that her love will remain unrequited if her assessment of her own attractiveness is wrong, but it’s much sadder when the play chooses to believe what she says about herself, and present her as working class and plain.

 

Valancy

And she has that heartbreaking line about overhearing the woman at church say “She’s so kind; it’s a pity she’s so plain,” which the adaptor of the production I was in cut. It’s so much more tragic when you realize the rest of the world views her the way she sees herself. I agree that Sonya’s costume told us everything we needed to know about her situation and how hard she works to keep things going on the estate. It gave a nice contrast to Yelena and really highlighted how the arrival of the professor and his stylish wife shakes everything up.

 

I do think Quintessence could be more thoughtful about the way they approach costuming in general though; it often lacks a sense of an overall design concept. Christina Lorraine Bullard had the men dressed in suits that read as fairly period appropriate to Chekhov. We know it’s hot out, late summer, so seeing the men in three-piece suits immediately places them in another time. However, the women, particularly Sonya and Yelena, were wearing modern clothing, Sonya in denim overalls and Yelena in clingy, revealing summer dresses that one would wear today. It caused a conflict in time and place that shouldn’t have been present in the play, and took my mind out of it as I tried to place the when and where..

 

Jane

I think that’s a good point. The costumes didn’t really land in space and time. I’ve never been to the Keswick before, but now I understand what previous reviewers have loves about Quintessences’ season in this space. It’s really beautiful and decrepit. I really enjoyed the simplicity of this set. What did you think?

 

Valancy

Oh, that building is magnificent. I love coming through the inner lobby, with its Art Deco, crumbling elegance, on my way to the seating area. It becomes part of the theatrical experience.

 

I did really love the simplicity of the staging area and being able to see the furniture and props in the “moat” surrounding it, waiting to be used in future scenes. There were the usual problems with staging in the round… actors blocking each other while sitting at the table, etc… but it gave us the opportunity to feel we were part of the world, especially with Yelena’s porch swing in the aisle, surrounded by audience, and the piano in another aisle.

 

One thing I found problematic was the breaking of the fourth wall in the soliloquies. I am a personal fan of the fourth wall, particularly in Chekhov, where I think the audience should feel like they’re gaining admittance to the hidden thoughts of the characters without being seen… and the actors are engaging in what we called “public solitude” in acting school, which is so much more exciting than being addressed directly by an actor.

 

Jane

That’s funny, I didn’t feel good about the direct address, and now I see why. “Public Solitude” is a feature that belongs to the play. And breaking the fourth wall creates an ‘audience,’ that speakers might believe in, and therefore find some solace. It takes away from the stuffiness of the situation to know that they are being heard, when so much of this play is about not being heard and not having an outlet.

 

I know that you were in this play, so it must have been strange to see a very different production. What did you think about the acting choices?

 

Valancy

Everything was so different from the way we approached it in my production,  which is one of the things I really enjoyed about this Uncle Vanya. Yelena was truly out of her mind with boredom, which was a mixed bag; it created a sense of comedy in the beginning, because everyone else feels things so deeply and with such desperation and her face was such a beautiful blank that it was easy to see why everyone projected their desires onto her, but I felt it resulted in an absence of connection in subsequent scenes, particularly in the top of Act 2 when we see her alone with her husband, Serebraykov. She tells us she married him out of a sense of love, but unless there’s some love, or a sense of obligation, left in her, the audience is wondering why she bothers to stay with him at all. She’s more an angry teenager mouthing off to a parent, than a wife trapped by convention, especially in her modern, revealing clothing. There’s nothing I could see holding her there.

 

Jane

I see your point, but I did love Julia Frey in this role. I loved the way her face stayed impassive, but her hands were always shaking and fidgeting.

 

Valancy

Yes, Julia Frey certainly created a character in the first scene that I felt like watching, despite her lack of responsiveness to the passions around her, and that is certainly a quality that Yelena possesses. Dan Kern as the professor was spectacular. He seemed to inhabit the Chekhovian ideal, completely natural and professorial; I wanted to sit at his feet myself, just as his students did, and soak up his wisdom.

 

Jane

Yes, when the professor is charming but clueless I think it’s more tragic than when he’s played for laughs. I have to say I really enjoyed his scenes with Yelena, particularly his constant moaning and monologuing which drives her insane. She may have seemed like a teenager with her father, but for me, that worked. The tragic thing about their relationship is that it’s mismatched in terms of age. I believe that she might become resentful and petulant.

 

Valancy

I can see that. I think that’s why I love Chekhov so much; you could take one of his plays and always find new interpretations, new layers, new hidden thoughts. What a gift.

 

I also loved Jessica M. Johnson’s Sonya, particularly in the first half of the play, when her innocence and joy in the mundane details of life were most apparent. One of my favorite moments was the bread and cheese sharing scene in Act 2, when she is alone with Dr. Astrov, who was played with self conscious petulance by Kevin Bergen. I always love well-played silences on stage, when the characters seem to be living fully in each other’s company. I felt it was exactly what Chekhov had intended when he wrote the scene. I almost felt jealous we had missed that scene’s potential in my production, but I was too busy being thrilled as an audience member that they had found it.

 

Jane

I loved this Sonya, too. I think that Jessica M.Johnson played her with tragic buoyancy. I loved her physicality which bound her to the earth. She took up space and clomped around. I believed that she’d worked a farm all of her life.

 

Valancy

I agree. I think some things fell apart in the second half of the play. Emotion in Chekhov is a tricky balancing act, because you’re often dealing with characters who are terribly unhappy and who are even battling with suicidal feelings… but as unhappy as Sonya is at the end of the play, if the character indulges in feelings of self-pity or gives over to too much obvious emotion and feeling, the audience is then not as free to embrace that sorrow and pathos. We have to believe at the end of the play that Sonya is the strongest of them all and will truly endure and do what needs to be done to keep the estate going and make sure Uncle Vanya survives. I found myself doubting Sonya’s ability to survive the end of the play in this production, Again, it’s a tricky thing, and requires a really strong director to navigate it, particularly in the final scene, when Vanya and Sonya are all they have to cling to.

 

Jane

I also want to make a point of acknowledging Daniel Ison as Yeffim which is such a small part, but I found Ison really compelling. He was very present even if the character wasn’t influencing the action much.

 

Valancy

I agree he was very compelling.

 

Jane

So having acted in a different adaptation, what did you think of this translation?

 

Valancy

I liked the straightforwardness of this adaptation, but I think parts of Annie Baker’s adaptation are colloquially so modern and American that some of the acting and delivery came through as very casual and stood out as of our time and place, which made the obviously Russian setting seem out of place. I wonder what it would have been like had Alex Burns simply chosen to set it in 1990’s Burbank, California.

 

Jane

This gets into questions that we had with the production that was at Hedgerow last year, and with what Mark Cofta wrote about for the Broad Street Review. The play is either about Russia in 1897, or it’s about all time forever, or it’s got something to say about now.

 

I was one of the reviewers for that Hedgerow production, and I was frustrated with its lack of grounding in the past or message for our times. Cofta saw this play as wedging in a message about race where it didn’t belong.

 

I actually didn’t notice the race dimension in this production until the scene where Serebraykov announces that he plans to sell the property. And I really appreciated that moment of revelation. Throughout the show, the races of the actors didn’t really affect the way I was recieving the story. It felt like regular color-blind casting. But when Vanya loses his mind about having spent his whole life working to support Serebraykov, and Serebraykov’s relative cluelessness (why didn’t you give yourself a raise?) I realized that it was a strong choice to put black actors into the roles of Vanya and Sonya.

 

Valancy

Alex Burns’ response to Mark Cofta made the distinction between “color blind,” which this was not, and “racially aware” and I think if Serebryakov hadn’t been Sonya’s father or hadn’t been white, it would have been a stronger, clearer choice. Of course, for that moment when Serebraykov reveals he’s selling the estate to work, he had to be white and privileged. Until I read Burns’ written response, I wasn’t sure how conscious and intentional the choice was though… something I wouldn’t have thought about had Sonya, Vanya and Maria not been related to one another, and Yeffim, the other black actor, not been a laborer. I thought back to the production of The Cherry Orchard I recently saw in New York, where the ex-serfs turned land-owners were African- American and it felt like a definite directorial choice.There was no question that race and background played a role in how the other characters viewed them.  It would have been less confusing in this production of “Uncle Vanya” if there had been less of a familial divide, because I don’t think the choice added to the understanding of this particular production. I loved the diversity of the production, but I wasn’t sure about the clarity of Alex Burns’ statement.

 

Jane

I guess we are talking more about directing than the script.

 

Valancy

Yes; I think it all comes down to the vision of the director. At intermission, I turned to you and expressed complete faith in the production and marveled at some of those beautiful moments my production had lacked, but I felt some of it fell apart in the second half of the production. Chekhov’s Act 3 is always the most difficult because it’s when it all comes to a head and the gun comes out; if you miss the mark, or the emotion doesn’t seem particularly well-earned, the audience checks out.

And by having Sonya face out during a large portion of that dramatic “selling the estate” scene, I was distracted. It felt unreasonable that everyone seemed to notice her discontent and sorrow, even Yeffim the workman, but no one mentioned it. I think the power of that scene as written is that everyone is too wrapped up in their own lives and concerns to see the suffering of anyone else around them. It’s the tragedy and the comedy of Chekhov.

 

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