Sunday, May 9, 2010

The meek have it... just

So it was a fine night in imaginary St Petersburg, as I immersed myself in a production of Uncle Vanya flown over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music from the Maly Drama Theatre. But the early signs had not been good. The director and sine qua non of today's Maly, Lev Dodin, hadn't shown up for the pre-performance talk, and the company members who filled in were pandering something awful to the rapt audience by mocking new writing and simultaneous translation. Old is best, they declared with ingratiating shrugs, and, having seen a Moscow Arts Theatre production in that very building that had clung to this principle with stultifying effect, I braced myself for the worst.

The stage was simple, a square floor of natural wood framed by three low walls in which several doors were hidden. Above the stage floated an open wooden grid holding three huge egg-shaped bales of hay. The actors casually drifted in under the hay, setting out table and chairs, a samovar, teacups, a buffet. By the time the first words were spoken, the play had coalesced rather than begun. In the homes I visited on my trips to Russia, little plates of nibbles and tea things and bottles of mineral water would constantly appear on the kitchen table as if out of nowhere throughout the day - this was exactly like that, the characters grazing at their leisure.

All the other Vanyas I have seen were played by men who probably would never have stood a chance with Elena. This one (Sergei Kurashev) was more awkward than unattractive, and could easily have been quite the dashing catch in his youth, but he had been physically impaired by years of indecision. He exuded anguish every moment he was on stage, and needed only the slightest of excuses to start bursting with it - Elena's exclamation about him being a pain resonated like never before. In fact, the remarkable thing about this production was that all of the text resonated - even those Chekhovian character self-descriptions that can so easily bring with them the scent of old chestnuts (Telegin (Alexander Zavyalov) was the only one who came anywhere near this trap, and it was clear that whatever fault there may have been laid squarely with Chekhov and Father Time, not him).

All the lead men exhibited the same indecision around Elena (Ksenia Rappaport), torn in delicate agony between fear of rejection and desire to devour her. Elena herself was not an ice queen, like Julianne Moore played her, but rather another soul that wanted to soar but had been atrophied by indecision. Sonya (Elena Kalinina) was played not as the ingenue victim, but as a sweet young woman whose heart was fully engaged in the buffeting it was being given, and yearned like the best of them, yet deep down had a sublime grasp of its fate (yes, "its" fate - Sonya was led by her heart, and her head and conscience knowingly accepted the back seat). There was a beautiful moment when Elena and Sonya were talking girl talk about the doctor, faces turned to the audience, Sonya letting the irrational laughter roll out (an easy, natural laughter, not nervous, and its meaning was not commented upon by the staging, but rather floated up there somewhere between the bales of hay) and Elena sobbing drunkenly and miserably next to her - a hilarious parody of those happy/sad masks that hang in old theatres.

The long night was done beautifully. I realized that the productions I had seen before had for all intents and purposes either ignored or forgotten what time it was. Most of the stage was in darkness, and people were carrying candles. The wall opened to reveal a double door with glass panes downstage left, down which rain ran in rivulets through the entire act. The dialogue was punctuated by the sound of heavy drops hitting the ground. In the morning, the bales were bathed in intensely bright orange light from the dawn.

Elena and Astrov's (Igor Chernevich) first kiss came as Vanya burst through the garden door with a bunch of roses - he froze mid stride, balanced comically on one leg, roses drooping, and Elena in her terror grabbed the map and held it tight around her torso, like some kind of farcically surreal chastity belt. The staging of the final parting kiss followed Chekhov's directions to the letter - "(she kisses him impulsively, and they part quickly)" - while building a world of subtext around them. Astrov circled Elena for some minutes, struggling to chastely resist her patently obvious availability, and when the impulse finally found expression, it was dam-breaking time. But the second they gave in to their passion, the walls opened and the entire cast wafted onto the stage, witnessing their indiscretion with a quintessentially Russian stoicism. Elena had her back to the assembled crowd, and Astrov had to silently indicate to her that they had company - LOTS of company. She turned to the audience before facing the music, and pulled her face into a wide-eyed grimace - "OOPS!!!!"

The Sonyas I had seen before had elicited nothing more than pity. They were fighting a valorous yet ultimately doomed struggle against the greater power of fate, and their hearts were eventually crushed by the ugliness of it all. But now I realize that this was because all those earlier productions hadn't worked. For this Sonya, I did not feel a shred of pity. Instead, I felt compassion for these meek hearts, Sonya and Vanya, a longing for them - for us - to be rewarded for the good deeds we do for others, for which we neither ask nor receive a worldly prize. And for the very first time, I believed deep down that what Sonya said was not a desperate, naive attempt at transcendence that was destined to be repeated over and over again in vain - but rather that it was true. It made me wonder, could this actually be how the meek shall inherit the earth?

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