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Reviewed by:
  • Uncle Vanya
  • Telory Williamson
Uncle Vanya. By Anton Chekhov. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Oregon. 12 August 1998.

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Figure 1.

Sonya (Robynn Rodriguez) and Yelena (Robin Goodrin Nordli) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 1998 production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in the Angus Bowmer Theater. Directed by Libby Appel. Photo: Christopher Briscoe.

In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya the set so thoroughly incorporated the playwright’s psychology that the set pieces themselves determined the entire gestus of the play’s characters in production. Scenic designer Robert Brill has made this production a tribute to the playwright’s characterization techniques. In Chekhov’s works characters are separated from each other emotionally while sharing a common physical space that is haunted by memories of the past. These ghosted memories crowd Brill’s minimalist set to the extant that even an empty stage may appear full. Director Libby Appel does Brill’s set pieces justice by allowing her actors use of the set’s multiple divisions to establish their characters’ ambivalence about intimacy within a confined domestic space.

The downstage areas of Brill’s design sports conventional Chekhovian decor: fading upper-class, late nineteenth century furniture with the requisite grand piano placed center stage as a focal point. The peripheral areas of this set add the crucial elements of layering and division. The entrance to the wings on both sides is marked by one set of wide door frames angled on perspective sightlines, and near center stage there appears another high wall with a different set of door frames, complete with shuttered French doors. This middle divider is matched by other walls on both sides with wide door frames. All of these walls are angled and spaced to give the appearance of a large house with multiple remote rooms. The characters traverse the semi-permeable barricades of this space, frustrated at times by its tendency toward isolation and division, at other times relieved by the distance it creates for them.

In the spirit of Chekhov’s attention to minute detail, Appel introduces each of the play’s four acts with a single still image, focused with a downlight on the piano center stage. The first of these tableaux presents a portrait of Uncle Vanya draped desperately over the piano lid, newspapers covering both him and portions of the surrounding floor. The light fades and Vanya is seated at the piano, the newspapers folded on a table stage left. As Maryina, Astrov, and Vanya reminisce about the past, Yelena enters from upstage, her measured steps accompanied by recorded piano music. Dressed in a long white gown with matching parasol, Yelena ghosts her way through the stage left walls, across the back of the stage and through the right stage walls before choosing to enter the down stage space. A black plastic cyclorama reflects her every move. Already, her distance from the others is established.

Vanya begins his pursuit of Yelena instantaneously, his verbal addresses marked by a dry sarcasm that later escalates into hysteria. Yelena deflects his advances, using the many walls as an escape route. Appel’s choice to make Vanya aggressive as both a rejected lover and acerbic commentator unfortunately gives this actor less room for gradual escalation throughout the play, and dampens the subtlety of Vanya’s awkwardness in expressing his love for Yelena. Vanya’s aggression also forces the actress playing Yelena to be in repeated physical contact with a man whose touch she should avoid at all costs.

Act 2 begins with a spotlight on the piano again; this time rain is dripping into a bucket set on the piano lid. This image disappears, although the bucket remains in place as sounds of the storm begin to echo and accompany the inner turmoil of Vanya and Yelena. In moments when Vanya is reduced to tears, the rain increases; in Yelena’s moments of fury, thunder booms to punctuate her statements of contempt. The external elements have been invited into this closed domestic environment, giving voice to unspoken desires and frustrations of all the characters. Yelena divulges her fear of...

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pp. 76-78
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