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Uncle Vanya brings frustrations of Chekhov's Russia to Duke

dress rehearsal for Uncle Vanya
dress rehearsal for Uncle Vanya

Check your preconceived notions of Chekhov at the Sheafer Theater door.

The theater department’s production of “Uncle Vanya” aims to give Anton Chekhov’s classic an upgrade that brings the woes of 1800s middle-class Russians to life for a modern audience. The play opened last Thursday and will continue through Sunday, Nov. 24.

Over the course of roughly two hours, the cast shows the happenings on a rural estate when a professor and his much younger second wife Yelena come to visit, unable to afford their city lives any longer. The estate belongs to Sonya, the professor’s daughter by his first wife, and is managed by her Uncle Vanya, the titular main character. The local country doctor who Sonya is in love with, Astrov, as well as Vanya both become infatuated with Yelena. The play follows the characters as they deal with their frustrations.

Resident dramaturg Jules Odendahl-James helped the cast research and explore the historical context of the play. She said it’s “the perfect Thanksgiving story” that anyone with a family can relate to.

“It’s about a family that has all its positive and negative dynamics being sort of crammed together in a space and having to live with each other,” Odendahl-James said. “Over time, all those little problems come up to the surface and say all those things that have been pent up inside.”

She added that though the characters are in their 40s or even older, the questions raised are still relevant to 20-somethings.

“Have I missed the boat? Did I make the right choice? Have I fallen in love with the right person? If I haven’t fallen in love yet, will I do that?” were just a few examples given by Odendahl-James.

When the play starts, it starts in chaos. One feels out of place as the cast walks about, all simultaneously delivering disjoint lines and making noise. It takes a few minutes to realize the play has started and the lack of costuming at the beginning feels anachronistic.

Odendahl-James noted that the play extends beyond period costumes, instead highlighting the interplay among the costume, design and movements, which creates the feel of the play.

“We are attentive to the props that are needed, but this is not an exactly faithful representation of a country home in 19th century Russia," Odendahl-James said. "[It's] the late summer to early fall world and the temperature and climate and the type of people are infused through everything.”

One of the most unique features of the play is the double casting of several of the characters. The four main characters in the script are each split between two actors. Director Jeff Storer, professor of the practice of theater studies, experimented with double casting in one of his theater classes last semester and thought it would be a good for “Uncle Vanya” as well. In addition, with a lean cast of only nine written in the play, Storer wanted to incorporate as many students as possible.

Storer added that having multiple actors play one character also allows for a broader interpretation of the characters, separating them from the actors. He noted that this cast in particular is incredibly diverse, which brings many different regionalisms to the play. For example, one of the actresses who plays Yelena is from Arkansas while the other is from Zimbabwe.

Senior Ashley Long, the Arkansan who plays Yelena, noted that one of the biggest challenges of double casting was picking up the play when one hasn’t fully experienced all of the emotions that have happened in the interim.

Senior Nick Prey, who plays one of the Astrovs, said the experience of splitting a character with junior Mike Myers was new and interesting.

“My natural impulse would be very different from Mike’s and the way we interpreted and played the character. I started taking things from him and he started taking things from me and it was a combined process,” Prey said. “I honestly don’t know anymore how I would have played the character if I were doing it on my own.”

Sophomore Faye Goodwin, who played one of the Sonyas, said that she was initially concerned there might be a certain competitiveness between actors sharing roles, but found the collaborative process to be meaningful.

“It almost took out that immature student actor element in thinking that the character is about you,” Goodwin said. “It’s not about you. It’s about the character.”

Throughout the play, both actors in each role were often on stage with one spectating while the other delivered lines. Goodwin noted that while the character changes can throw the audience off, it also gives them more freedom.

“The best part about the weird stuff we’re doing, the kind of unconventional meta stuff, is that it can be interpreted by the audiences,” Goodwin said. “As long as the audience is thinking or feeling anything, whether it inspires them or depresses them...they related.”

The character of Sonya in particular draws on the watchers’ heartstrings. A single woman, she runs the entire estate while her Uncle mopes though his midlife crisis, and yet has no power over the future of the estate or the man that she loves.

Junior Cynthia Wang, who played the other Sonya, emphasized that while the play encompasses a lot of sadness, there is also a great deal of comedy and she encouraged audiences not to suppress their laughter.

Prey added that the play is not just the four main characters.

“One of the things we’ve really discovered about the play is that it really is about the ensemble,” Prey said. “I haven’t been this close to a cast in a while.”

The score of the play was written by Bart Matthews, Trinity ’96, who has worked with Storer on several productions in the past.

“I just went away and wrote a bunch of music,” Matthews said.

Although he didn’t formally study Russian tunes as preparation, he tried to give it a Eastern European feel. Matthews said that he incorporated blues in the music to reflect the sorrow that so many of the characters experience.

“This play is no exception but [Chekhov’s] most popular plays dwell a lot on the misery of the human condition of wanting things you can’t have,” he said. “There’s a lot of angst around being miserable and not being able to do anything about it.”

He added that several things changed from the inception of the play to its delivery on stage. While Matthews has a few lines in the play himself, he was originally supposed to play the role of Waffles, one of the smaller but perhaps most endearing characters, who both acts and plays music in several of the scenes. But when first-year Rory Eggleston auditioned, Storer rearranged things because Eggleston was so “perfect” for the part.

The score also incorporated the melody of a Japanese lullaby that originated from junior Jaya Powell’s audition. Powell plays the part of a stage manager and sings the haunting lullaby partway through the play. Matthews noted that other pieces played throughout the production also have hints of the lullaby.

Powell and Eggleston, as well as several of the other cast members, double as musicians.

“He wanted to pull from as many different resources as he could both in terms of how he approached the acting and how he approached the music,” Matthews said of Storer’s strategy in bringing the play together.

Storer emphasized that theater is a form that is collaborative and is particularly well-suited for teaching students about the human condition.

“The arts are a remarkable way to remind us of our humanity and to enhance our ability to be the best communicators we can be,” Storer said.

"Uncle Vanya" runs Nov. 17, 23 and 24 in Sheafer Theater. For tickets and more information, visit http://theaterstudies.duke.edu/multimedia/uncle-vanya

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