Monday, October 8, 2018

Modernists: Naked and Uncle Vanya

Tara Franklin and James Barry in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of Naked. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Among the virtues of the Berkshire Theatre Group is its dedication to reviving forgotten plays, both American and European. The BTG summer season included The Petrified Forest, and currently you can see an excellent mounting of Luigi Pirandello’s Naked. Italy’s famous modernist playwright, who invented a new style of theatre, theatre of identity (usually known simply as Pirandellian theatre), with Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921, wrote Naked the following year. It was a remarkably prolific time for Pirandello, who turned out fourteen plays and a novel between 1921 and 1929; Naked was one of three plays he wrote in 1922 alone, including his second masterpiece, Henry IV. But I’d never read or seen it before. It’s rarely performed, and though I have six or eight Pirandello plays on my shelves, Naked isn’t among them. BTG is using the Nicholas Wright translation, which was produced at the Almeida in London nearly twenty years ago 2000 with Juliette Binoche and then in New York with Mira Sorvino.

Pirandello characterized his play as a melodrama, and so it is, yet it circumscribes the themes that also define Six Characters and Henry IV: the tension and the overlap between fiction and reality and the multiplicity of identities hidden within a single human being. Anyway, even his masterpieces are firmly embedded in melodrama; how else would you describe the story the characters, abandoned by their author, claim they are living over and over again, or the set of circumstances that drove the protagonist of Henry IV to insanity and prompted his friends to create a fictive world around him to support his mad vision? In Naked a governess, Ersilia Drei (Tara Franklin), jilted by her fiancé (James Barry) and fired by her employer when the child under her care takes a deadly fall off the roof, makes an unsuccessful effort to kill herself. The play suggests several alternative versions of Ersilia. Is she the victim portrayed by the journalist (David Adkins) who writes her story? Is she the insatiable slut depicted by her employer’s wife, the consul (Jeffrey Doornbos)? Her fiancé, Franco Laspiga (James Barry) – who, according to the newspaper story, rejected her and became engaged to another woman – believes in one romanticized edition. The celebrated writer, Ludovico Nota (Rocco Sisto), who puts her up in his rented rooms, sees her as a character like the ones in his own fictions. His landlady (Barbara Sims) begins by taking one attitude toward Ersilia and then changes her mind and adopts another. By the sensational final curtain we seem to have all the facts but it’s still impossible to arrive at a definitive point of view about her.

Presumably the original Italian production treated the melodramatic material seriously, just as it’s always handled in Six Characters. The director of Naked, Eric Hill, tries for a tone that shifts between straight drama and parody with a straight face, and almost all his actors have the skill to pull it off. Only Sisto can’t seem to manage it: he falls into the trap of commenting on the situation. Of the others, Franklin and Doornbos come across as the most “real” – that word must always come with quotation marks in Pirandello – while Adkins has the most brittle style and Barry is the funniest. That’s appropriate, since Pirandello has a great deal of fun with the earnest Laspiga, who seems to believe he lives in a world of high-romantic fiction and tosses about in a state of agony as Ersilia refuses to conform to his image of her. Franklin is very fine in the tricky linchpin role. Yoshi Tanokura has designed glamorous twenties outfits for the lucky actors, and Randall Parsons has given them a handsome set with an expressionist window view of an Italian street that underlines the play’s philosophical setting at the intersection of realism and anti-realism.

Jesse Pennington and Jay O. Sanders in Uncle Ványa. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The initial offering of the Hunter Theatre Project at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theatre is Richard Nelson’s new production of Uncle Ványa, presented in modern dress, in the round, and in the conversational style Nelson pioneered at the Public Theatre with his Apple Family tetralogy. (It was first produced at the Old Globe in San Diego.) Nelson collaborated on the translation with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the wizardly couple whose versions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have revolutionized the art of Russian-to-English translation. This Ványa not only freshens and enlivens Chekhov’s magnificent play; it reveals a text I thought I knew practically by heart as denser, funnier, and (especially in Dr. Ástrov’s speeches) more poetic. Nelson’s article in the September 10 New York Times about the process of working with Pevear and Volokhonsky singles out one of the most striking examples of the way the translation keeps introducing phrases that first knock the Chekhovphiles among us off-kilter and then leads us to a new perspective. In the opening scene, between Ástrov (Jesse Pennington) and the old nanny, Marína (Kate Kearney-Patch), he describes himself as a misfit in a country of misfits. At the end of the second act, Eléna (Celeste Arias) describes the doctor to her stepdaughter Sónya (Yvonne Woods), who is in love with him, as strange, though she speaks the word admiringly, and Ástrov himself claims that he knows that’s how he’s viewed in this rural area because he’s a vegetarian and an ecologist. The word “misfit” makes startling sense of the character of the doctor – of the disjunction between him and the patients he serves as well as of the profound unease that imbues all of these Russians.

The balance of “misfit” and “strange” also seems to have been the starting point for Pennington’s performance. He uses a light Irish brogue that exoticizes the character and links his longer speeches to passages in Joyce (I kept thinking of “The Dead”). I assumed while I was watching the play that the actor was Irish, but nothing in his bio in the playbill suggests that he’s anything but American. (He holds a Master’s from NYU.) Pennington has an odd, restless physicality: his body always seems extended, fanning out in unexpected directions, and he’s as angular and bent as an expressionist line drawing. The fact that the doctor is often drunk explains this quality – but not entirely. One of the ideas that this production emphasizes is the strong bond of friendship between him and Ványa (Jay O. Sanders), who, along with Sónya, his niece, manages the estate where the play is set. Here it’s clear that Ástrov reaches out to Ványa, whom he acknowledges as the rare intellectual spirit with whom he feels a kinship. They are two misfits whose profound dislocation draws them together.

The arrival of his brother-in-law, the professor Serebryakóv (Jon DeVries), with his beautiful young second wife, Eléna – Ványa’s beloved deceased sister, Sónya’s mother, was his first – has catapulted Ványa into a particularly anguished midlife crisis, and he blames the professor, a cosmopolitan scholar whom his work and his niece’s on the estate has been supporting for years. He is envious of the professor, who has, in his view, everything, including a woman he himself is enamored of, and who, he has lately determined, is a fraud, a second-rate mind, whereas Ványa might have been “a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky.” This is one of Chekhov’s saddest and most complexly funny creations, pathetic and aware that he’s pathetic, bursting with mordant, ironic wit. He hangs out with Eléna – her presence takes both him and Sónya away from the business of the estate – because their friendship, which is sometimes silly and sometimes prickly, is all that he can get from her; he’s aware it’s the meager leavings of his damnably, undeservedly fortunate brother-in-law, and the realization stings him even when he has Eléna to himself. Sanders brings so much emotional range and nuance to this character that he seems to have moved deep inside him; I would say that he joins the ranks of the two greatest Ványas I’ve seen before this, Michael Redgrave’s in the 1963 film of the Chichester Theatre production and Wallace Shawn’s in the 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street. The character comes apart in act three, when first he walks in with autumn roses for Eléna and catches her in a clinch with his friend Ástrov and then, mere moments later, Serebryakóv presents to those on the estate his scheme to sell it. Sanders makes Ványa’s fury a thing of wounded beauty, beginning with the moment when he smashes the roses against one of the dining-room tables and ending with his outcry to his mother, Márya (Alice Cannon), “What am I going to do?” It trails into the final act, when Eléna begs him to speak to her husband: when Sanders responds, “What can he have to say to me?,” you can’t tell whether he’s laughing or crying. It’s a devastating performance.

The other standout in the cast is DeVries, who is, I think, the best Serebryakóv I’ve ever seen. Like Sanders, he appeared in the Apple family plays – DeVries played the actor uncle who has lost his memory – and in his professor I recognized the weirdly detached quality of that other character, who seemed not quite to inhabit the same world as everyone else. It worked well for him then and it works brilliantly for him here. As DeVries plays the professor, he misses the most obvious clues about the people around him because he has no idea how to communicate with them. I hesitate to call him a narcissist or a man who’s on the spectrum because DeVries’s reading of the role is so wholly original that to consign him to a diagnosis would be to reduce his performance to a personality type. His most astonishing scene is the one at the beginning of act two when, keeping the whole house awake because of the pains in his legs (probably a symptom of gout – the doctor believes it is – though, irascible as always, he insists it’s rheumatism), he descends to self-pity with his wife, insisting that everyone is weary of him, everybody hates him. He’s behaving childishly, but what DeVries does here that no other actor I’ve seen has dared to attempt is to suggest just how miserable he really is; there’s an astonishing moment when he shades his eyes and turns away from Eléna so she can’t see him weep.

The cast is so alive to the subtleties and tensions in the text that almost nothing in it feels worked over. The evening is full of surprises – like the look of mixed dismay and exasperation on Arias’s face when Marína mentions, almost in passing, that the professor’s first wife agonized with him when he was feeling bad, or the way Cannon shakes her head slightly when she reading or listening to the professor, whom she adores (an indication of her intense concentration on matters of the intellect), or the scolding tone Kearney-Patch takes with Sónia as she leads him off to soothe him with linden tea and a massage. (This is the toughest Marína I’ve encountered.) Nothing about Woods’s portrayal of Sónia feels familiar, though I didn’t think all of it works;in the first act she misses a number of opportunities to show us, if not Ástrov, what his presence in the house does to her. It’s a noble performance even when it stumbles, though, because Woods takes the idea of Sónia’s discomfort within her own skin so far that she sometimes makes us uncomfortable.

Nelson has directed the actors with soliloquies – Sanders, Woods and Arias – to speak them to individual members of the audience, an experiment that bears fruit except in Woods’s second-act speech, where she shifts focus too much and the effect is stagy. God knows that isn’t a word I’d use to describe anything else in the show. The staging – around two long tables and a sideboard (Jason Ardizzone-West designed the set and the indispensable Jennifer Tipton lit it) – is so naturalistic that I suspect most of the audience doesn’t notice how beautiful it looks, for example when, near the end of act two, the newly reconciled Eléna (who is crying over her unhappy marriage) and Sónia (who is laughing with joy as she thinks about the doctor) sit across from each other, one at each of the tables. There’s only one element of the production I can’t fathom: why did the translators omit the character of Telegin (nicknamed Waffles), who lives on the estate? They throw in a random reference to him at the end, when Sónia and Ványa are sitting down to work on the accounts, but his omission is baffling.

To return to the notion of strangeness: I always feel, in the best Chekhov productions, that the dialogue and the interaction of the characters feels simultaneously richly familiar and dramatically strange, in the sense that the greatest art always occupies another realm that it pulls us into. But it’s especially the paradox of Chekhov’s plays, which are dotted with moments that poeticize the real in ways that somehow leave us magically adrift – the scene where Treplev presents Nina with the dead seagull, the last moment of Three Sisters with the title characters holding hands (a moment that prepares for the end of Beckett’s Come and Go, which is completely non-realist), the scene in The Cherry Orchard where we hear Trofimov fall down the stairs offstage or the one where the characters hear the dissonant sound of what sounds like a plucked string somewhere off in the woods. In Uncle Ványa the most potent example is probably Ványa’s explosion in the third act, but I felt it throughout Nelson’s production. This is the most significant performance of any Chekhov play I’ve seen since Vanya on 42nd Street. It’s utterly thrilling.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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