Goodman’s UNCLE VANYA Embodies the “Russian Soul”

Goodman’s UNCLE VANYA Embodies the “Russian Soul”

Pictured: Marton Csokas and Kristen Bush. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

[Editor’s note: Our reviewer, Tonika Todorova, broke a clearly defined PerformInk rule, as she will mention. Reviewers are asked to disclose any conflicts of interest to editors in advance and to decline to review shows that they may have a bias for or against based on relationships with those involved in the production. That said, we are an industry trade publication, and many of our reviewers are all intentionally active members of Chicago’s artistic community. It’s a different approach toward reviewing that we need to be up front about, and conflicts of interest are bound to arise. Tonika clearly acknowledges her potential bias in this review, and we think her particular perspective on Chekov and Uncle Vanya is undeniably valid, useful, and pertinent. Though clearly deserving, we’ve deemed this review ineligible for our Critic’s Pick designation. Perhaps it should be read more as one person’s personal reaction to the play. (Really, isn’t that what any review is?) As we continue to evolve and experiment with the notion of a play review, we’re proud to publish this piece.]

Review: UNCLE VANYA at Goodman Theatre

By Tonika Todorova

To offer a perfectly upfront admission here, I’m sure I’ve broken PerformInk protocol. I hope it doesn’t render my assessment of the production unusable, but I’m guilty of, well, creeping. Let me explain.

An experience of the theater doesn’t always begin when the house lights go down and end with curtain call, but rather it’s shrouded by the events leading up to and immediately following the theatrics. In a nutshell: the weather has been acting odd; the evening had notions of adventure; I was excited for a friend’s Goodman debut as one of the background characters in the show; my own snobbiness was under scrutiny (Chekhov is not something I had seen done right by American theaters); there was a most farcical display of musical chairs due to confusion over seat numbers in the intimate Owen space; I was seated next to a very vocal laugher; thanks to the friend, above, I ended up at the post-show reception where I was fortunate to witness candid behavior; the driver that took me home hailed from an old Soviet Bloc country; I was, and still am, plagued by imposter syndrome. Influenced by these external factors, I will endeavor to generate a thorough review, but I feel obligated to provide some context.

When preparing to see UNCLE VANYA, one must check their pretension at the door. Chekhov had the knack of understanding human nature and all its subtleties, so no matter where on the moral, economic, intellectual or age spectrum you blip, one of his characters will inevitably, sometimes cruelly, resonate with you.

There is a reason that Chekhov is ever so elusive to non-Russian productions and audiences. The nationalist identity, aptly named the “Russian soul,” is a key ingredient in any post-Gogol and Dostoyevsky literature as a way to understand how Slavs kept their autocracy and served as the reflection of the innocence lost by the West. The Russian soul became synonymous with the desire to suffer for the sake of the evolution of spirit, consequently turning out a people tortured by self-imposed philosophies and blessed with unrelenting compassion. Such is every character in every Chekhov story. We must agree that this secret sprinkled spice is necessary for a successful production or not much use would come from this assessment. But let me start with the essentials.

We all know that a translation/adaptation can make or break a play. First credits must be extended to Annie Baker for not sticking us with the stilted language that often comprises Russian lit. Ryckuй is often packed with double meanings, some words rooted in lengthy cultural experiences and traditions, whereas English prides itself on being able to communicate complicated ideas via simple, but rather numerous, words.

Kind of like what I’m doing right now, I suppose. I swear, I’m coming from a place of innate (or maybe inane… Ha. See what I did there?) understanding, even if I’m not armed with the most direct vocabulary. Did I mention my fear of the imposter phenomenon?

More often than not, lost in translation existential Chekhovian themes hover unsatisfied in the air, only to dissipate as soon as the theater doors open for egress. Refreshingly, this misfortune does not befall the Goodman production. A particular word caught my attention spoken by Astrov, the Doctor, when he referred to himself, and later to Vanya, as a “creep”. Usually, other versions use “eccentric” or “silly”, both of which belittle the repulsion that underlines this thought.

Later, at the post-show reception, Marton Csokas (Astrov) reminded me that some other versions have used “freak” which fails to convey the frequency with which this feeling resided in the Russian soul.

“Creep,” however, remains most apropos.

So, a solid script. Check. Now, the play hasn’t begun, but audiences are privy to looking at the set: tall walls painted in buttery Castelvetrano olive green, fading and peeling in spots, reflect the once energized country life, now diseased with its own contempt for the self. A traditional samovar, mismatched furniture and huge French doors giving a peek at the ivy-covered exterior when open, all prove to be brilliant touches in Todd Rosenthal’s design, subtly yellowing under the fall season brought on by Act III. Not entirely sold on the home radio in the corner… (home radios were still a couple decades away at the end of 19th century) Having a home radio on, would have meant that the entire household would gather to listen as part of a structured activity. Part of the relentless ennui at these country estates was due to lack of entertainment. In the province, without access to theater, symphonies, and the like, people amused themselves with reading, drinking, engaging in games (mostly cards), more drinking, and playing musical instruments. This is why when The Professor denies his wife Yelena the opportunity to play the piano, it’s a much deeper wound to her than it would appear on the surface. And based on Yelena’s Conservatory training she mentions she has received, she must be exceptionally good. No one gets into the St. Petersburg Conservatory unless they are exceptional. But the antique looking upright (another fine set detail) sat silent as a reminder of the decay of passion, another forgotten ideological leper. Luckily, there was drinking.

Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic must have done her share of research. Traditional Serf garbs were pegged against lovely undertones of French styles that were seeping into the upper middle class. (Catherine the Great’s rule brought western influence and the aristocracy gorged themselves with it, even having whole conversations in French, a practice that was deemed pretentious by the fall of the Romanov empire.) These costuming choices painted the differences between the beautiful, complicated Yelena and the homely inexperienced Sonya in high contrast. All design elements tailored masterfully to serve the script. Check.

But the biggest responsibility for tapping into the Russian soul lies with the actors. And for the most part, this ensemble delivers one authentic, funny and pure Chekhov with all its divine complexities; peeling it one layer at a time and exposing the tender core. Every peel cradled a fear, or a courage, a loneliness, a love… and in the words of Gogol: “…to love as the Russian soul loves, is to love not with the mind or anything else, but with all that God has given, all that is within you.” We were treated to Marilyn Dodds Frank shrouded in a maroon robe laced with eccentricity as the loyal Maria and Tim Hopper’s terrific portrayal of her despondent son, Vanya; Larry Newman Jr. brings in a multi-dimensional Telegin (a role that often goes unnoticed); A charming Caroline Neff molds into a plain Sonya and David Darlow delivers a strangely likeable Professor; Mary Ann Thebus steals the scene several times as a note-perfect Marina and leave it to Alžan Pelesić and his guitar to ignite some joy by way of drunk Russian folk songs (for all the actors involved in that scene — that was awesome.)

This hit a particularly sweet note with me because I’ve seen Pelesić conjure this gypsy magic at campfires around the country and it never fails.

Очи чёрные, очи страстные,/Black eyes, passionate eyes,

Очи жгучие и прекрасные!/Burning and beautiful eyes!

Как люблю я вас, как боюсь я вас!/How I love you, how I fear you!

Знать, увидел вас я в недобрый час!/It seems I met you in an unlucky hour!

Which brings me to the most interesting relationship in UNCLE VANYA, that between Kristen Bush’s deeply torn Yelena and Marton Csokas’ captivating Astrov. At first glance, I thought Yelena came with falseness, even a westernization, but as she was presented with opportunities, she revealed nuances of heartbreaking vulnerability, and I chalked up the pretense as a character choice: a facade that the young woman must wear to ward off unwanted advances.

But let’s face it, in the end, it’s Astrov that intrigues, and Goodman hit a bullseye with Kiwi actor Marton Csokas. Ever so cooly, even the cadence of his voice set him apart. His portrayal was genuine, unwavering, and best reflected in Vladimir Nabakov’s observation of Chekhov’s work: “What really attracted the Russian reader was that in Chekhov’s heroes he recognized the Russian idealist. . . a man who combined the deepest human decency of which man is capable with an almost ridiculous inability to put his ideals and principles into action; a man devoted to moral beauty, the welfare of his people, the welfare of the universe, but unable in his private life to do anything useful; frittering away his provincial existence in a haze of utopian dreams; knowing exactly what is good, what is worth while living for, but at the same time sinking lower and lower in the mud of a humdrum existence, unhappy in love, hopelessly inefficient in everything — a good man who cannot make good. This is the character that passes — in the guise of a doctor, a student, a village teacher, many other professional people — all through Chekhov’s stories.” Marton Csokas didn’t throw away a single moment. He understood the subtext in every line he delivered, even the very first “Maybe, I’ll have some vodka.” Insert quite the vocal laughter from my audience neighbor here.

The only missing moment for me was Sonya’s heartbreak. The one that reveals itself in the silence following her running out after the Doctor, knowing that off stage, she threw herself at his feet in one last desperate plea, only to be rejected. In her last speech, having to muster the energy to convince her Uncle that they must go on and live out their pointless lives, there is a real opportunity for pathos that didn’t seem to unfold.

This is not the first Chekhov rodeo for director Robert Falls. In press materials, he mentions that after re-reading this play last year, it demanded that it be done. I can see why. He knows what it takes to examine one’s own life and, taking a page from Stanislavski’s book, he clearly understood how “The language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul,” as tremendous pauses filled the air with so much subtext, you could hardly breathe. Robert Falls brought the Russian spirit alive under candle lights and tall dancing shadows, keen observations and tense silences. And to any Russian folk out there reading this, those that tsk how Americans can’t do Chekhov — you know who you are — just recognize that the Goodman got it.

Immediately following the performance, I met up with friends, one of whom excitedly reported: “Now, this is how you direct a show!” And I must agree. It’s the director’s job to make sure everyone understands the meaning and vision. Even Olexiy Kryvich, the actor playing a non-speaking servant, had a great understanding of this text. He was the one that explained how in Russian, you wouldn’t see an empty room and exclaim that nobody was there, that it was devoid of people. You would see it as a room devoid of souls. It was plain to see that there was a great deal of table work involved with this cast. So, fulfillment of the director’s vision: check.

On the ride home, we talked excitedly about the experience, recounting moments we liked and moments we found funny. When we arrived, the Serbian driver got out to open the door and thank us for being entertaining and unusual. When does that ever happen? Which got me thinking, this was, indeed, an unusual evening. I wonder if I would have had the opportunity to witness this post-show candidness if anyone knew I was there to review the show. Infiltrating the dust behind the curtains to find this was one of those rare occasions that cast and crew knew they were part of something special, was definitely worth it. So, I’m a creep. But as Astrov points out, we are all creeps. To be a creep, is to be normal.

These artists were all accomplices to an evening done right. And you could see it in their faces: the pride of being part of a production with je ne sais quoi, brewing an excellent Chekhovian cup of tea with a spoonful of Russian soul; a spontaneous sing along to a forgotten melody, a moment in time that will be remembered fondly as one of those that hit the spot.

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