Monday, July 14, 2008

Scenes from a Country Life

We had our Meet & Greet for Uncle Vanya last Tuesday*, and it was positively edifying. I'm not going to lie--I was originally a bit skeptical about this gloomy-sounding Chekhov play. But in putting together the Vanya program (which is about 2/3 done as I type this) I've learned that the woman responsible for the adaptation we're using--award-winning director, playwright, and McCarter Theatre Artistic Director Emily Mann--loves Chekhov for his wit, the way he could look at life and find humor in them, even as his characters (and himself) suffer the various indignities of the human condition.

Last week's Meet & Greet--a first-day-of-rehearsals event wherein the Cal Shakes staff, the play's cast and creative team, and various and sundry other folks all get to meet one another before hearing the director's presentation on the show--convinced me even further that we are in very capable hands, indeed. Director Timothy "Timi" Near (the Artistic Director of San Jose Rep, making her debut at our Theater) began her presentation by telling us how much she enjoyed An Ideal Husband, even despite her bias**. So we were all, of course, fast friends after that. Then she proceeded to tell us all the ways she is capable of breathing life into Chekhov.

For one thing, Ms. Near acted for many years with the National Theatre of the Deaf, wherein she was one of three hearing actors in a 15-actor ensemble. She told us about how, when doing Chekhov (as she did many times with the NTD), the silences were a challenge. Silence is important in the work of Anton Chekhov--in Uncle Vanya, everyone is making plans, working on ways to improve their sorry lots in life. So in American Sign Language, Vanya was a very busy-looking play. "But," said Ms. Near, "When the problem becomes overwhelming, and you're not going to find a solution in this lifetime, it's then that you have stillness."

Another major theme of Ms. Near's presentation was the play's subtitle, "Scenes from a Country life in Four Acts." "I've never seen a show that expresses the subtitle," she said. The productions she's seen of Vanya have all either been austerely gray or painstakingly elegant. Having spent the first 18 years of her life on a remote Northern California farm "with no electricity or urban distraction," the director is intimately aware of the colorful existence of country life--the richness of experience that being surrounded by birth, death, and sex (mostly courtesy of the farm animals), and the sharp points of realization that exist in this kind of landscape. The daughter of a New York socialite and a North Dakota cowboy, Near explains that "You become confronted by who you are, and who you've been imprisoned with."

We also got to look at costume sketches by Raquel M. Barreto, and the set model by Erik Flatmo. Stay tuned to this space for a look at those.


* I know, I know--An Ideal Husband's just halfway through its run! But that's what it's like here during the season, a constant looking ahead, balancing one show at the Bruns with one in the rehearsal hall. It's positively dizzying.
** Robert Chiltern is played, in our current production, by Ms. Near's real-life husband, Michael Butler.

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