St. Idiot Collective's 'Vaudeville Vanya' ambitiously seeks to explode a great old play with a great old medium, but it ends up a sheen of vaudeville brushed over a hellbent staging of Uncle Vanya
Reviewed by Hannah Kenah, Fri., July 21, 2006
Arts on Real, through July 22
Running time: 2 hr, 50 min
St. Idiot Collective's premiere production, Vaudeville Vanya, makes an excellent proposal: Take a great old play and explode it with a great old medium. Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya was written in 1899 at the height of vaudeville's popularity. Chekhov himself tried to convince the world that his plays were funny, so why not make them even funnier?
Out of the gate, Vaudeville Vanya looks like the very best horse. The first five minutes of this piece are exquisite. The audience is enraptured, the performers are on fire, and there is the titillating sense that anything could happen. From a strange brew of noises offstage, the Vanya characters suddenly appear, creeping single file along a slanted wall. Some are holding suitcases over their heads, some flowerpots. They look strange. They are looking strangely at us. A break and suddenly they are dancing, singing. Another break and they are creeping downstage again, mechanically this time. Clockwork Orange Vanya? Where are we? Wow!!!!
This no doubt will be the staying power of St. Idiot Collective or SIC. It is a group of dynamic young performers who work well together. They present a seamless front. It was opening night, the energy was high, and props were breaking. Roll with it they did. Brent Werzner caught a falling wine glass without missing a beat. Gabriel McIver and Jeffery Mills turned a broken teacup into a lazzo on second tries. And McIver, in the middle of his climactic diatribe, took the time to chide a rustling audience member. Beautiful. Brilliant. This is what makes live theatre live.
The trouble is that after those first five minutes, they shift into a production of Uncle Vanya, and just like that we are in the middle of Chekhov's frequently staged Scenes From a Country Life.
Where are the creeping characters? Where's the vaudeville?
The vaudeville will return. It appears in breaks from the action of the play: Lee Eddy and Jeffery Mills box and thumb wrestle; Elizabeth Wakehouse becomes a dog-show damsel; Jason Newman rants; and Adriene Mishler performs a dream ballet. These moments are hilarious breaks from an otherwise straightforward rendering of Uncle Vanya.
Though the problem with Vaudeville Vanya is that it is either vaudeville or Vanya, some of the actors manage a vaudevillian twist on their Chekhovian character. Newman's Professor perfectly achieves over-the-top anguish. Jenny Larson's Marina is an aged maid and a sultry harlot; her character's distinctive rhythm can cut through anything. Eddy's Madame V is brilliant and underused. Adam Sultan (who also provides show-stealing original music) may not employ much vaudeville, but his humility and his discomfort are fun to watch. As for Vanya, the central figure around whose wasted life Chekhov builds this story, Jeffery Mills works really hard, but his performance is noncohesive and unintelligible half of his words are whispered, the other half spit. His efforts come across as antics. His Vanya never lands.
There is some profound brilliance here. In the best moment of the whole piece, Chekhov himself comes into play. Gabriel McIver, the actor playing the playwright, has been lurking around the stage, silently observing. Suddenly he gets fed up, begins waving a gun, and shouts, "Blather, Devices, Metaphors, Blather!" After making his characters dance, putting teacups on their heads, and telling dirty jokes, Chekhov dies of tuberculosis. Great ending but a false one. SIC goes on to stage the entire fourth act after this.
And that's in the third hour of the production.
Vaudeville died in 1932 when NYC's Palace Theatre switched over to a full bill of movies. The ending of Vaudeville Vanya is a nod to this death, with the last half of Act IV presented as a silent film. Alas, like much of the rest of this piece, the film is too long and barely does justice to the style it's evoking. A sheen of vaudeville brushed over a hellbent staging of Vanya.
It is fine to propose two worlds colliding, but here the results are vague a lack of choice, a lack of direction. A great proposal that, in the end, illuminates neither element. The saving grace is the vitality of these performers. St. Idiot Collective's first production is ambitious. Though it fails often, artists who are willing to fail are the ones who are worth watching.