“Vanya” gives haunting new life to a masterpiece of world drama

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David Flores plays the emotionally and spiritually frustrated Uncle Vanya, here interacting with Alicia Rice, as Elena, the wife of the scholar he dedicated his life to, in Off-the-Wall’s “Vanya.” Photos courtesy of Off-the Wall.
A contemplation more than a review:
Vanya, at Off-the-Wall Theater, based on Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov, running through Sept 29 in Milwaukee, Info: www.offthewallmke.com, or 1-262-509-0945
I was just reflecting on Vanya, Off-the-Wall Theater artistic director Dale Gutzman’s courageous, tenderly painful and insightful new adaptation of Chekhov’s great play Uncle Vanya. It seems tackling classics takes courage for a very small, low-budget theater that cannot attract the biggest name actors.
But as he showed in his ingenious recent take on Melville’s Moby-Dick in Call Me Ishmael, the director seems to possess a profound sense of history (and humor), both literary and dramatic. Melville, of course, also had a profound sense of history and humor, both literary and dramatic, considering that Shakespeare was his greatest literary influence.
Sections of Moby-Dick even have what you might call wannabe stage directions.
Of course, many people have written great things about Melville and his concerns and themes but he is constantly trying to reach to the depths of matters, including Ahab’s famous “strike through the mask” of the white sperm whale’s huge face, signifying the somewhat cosmic, inscrutable and horror-inducing “whiteness of the whale.” (God? Satan? or Nature?)
Then regarding Nature and deep history, you can swim through his then-unprecedented gathering of cetology and meditations on the whale and the oceans, and finally of course the great, watery, vertigo-inducing closing sentence of Moby-Dick, imprinted on my memory:
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet-yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Note a fine point, Melville’s bracing, buttressing use of two semi-colons in the sentence.
Of course, this ending precedes the beautiful, sunrise-like, shark skin-shedding of danger in the epilogue.
I recall a friend saying MD came down to fate, an excellent and surely central subject of the novel, but not a theme per se, as the English prof would say.
I am not proposing to offer a single theme for MD here partly because today I want to really honor the local theatrical artistic director Gutzman, his company and Chekhov.

I highly recommend OTWT’s Vanya.

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Randall Anderson plays Dr. Astrov, a troubled family friend in a scene with Elena.
To that end, I offer this as a brief, indirect homage to this production and Chekov’s play, and a point of comparison, my review of American Players Theatre’s Uncle Vanya from some years ago, which should provide exposition and assessment of the play.
OTW’s small, black-box theater provides a claustrophobic and nostalgic atmosphere that I think the playwright would approve of, given this tense family drama. The set is more apt than that of APT (play on words merely felicitous), which was spacious and outdoors.
And given the much smaller Milwaukee theater’s uniformly excellent acting and sensitive direction, I put this production in the same major league as American Players Theatre.

Here’s a link to a PDF of that American Players Theatre review, published in The Capital Times:

vanya APT PDF





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