The design impresses, but the actors struggle against a noisy air conditioner
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., July 1, 2011
The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo, 476-7833
Through July 2
Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.
Poor Uncle Vanya. That's what I thought when I found out I was going to see this play again. Poor Uncle Vanya. If you consider Vanya's outward circumstances, you might think he has it made.
He doesn't want for anything materially or emotionally. He has a loving, extended family around him. He's run a family estate in Russia for decades. Granted, the country around him is falling apart, but his position and his income are secure. Yet he yearns to create and, even more, yearns for love. And he isn't the only one yearning. Everyone around him yearns for something: Nanny yearns for the past, Aleksandr yearns for recognition, Sonya yearns for the doctor, the doctor yearns for a nature uncorrupted by humankind, and Vanya – well, not only does poor Uncle Vanya yearn for love, he can't even shoot straight.
The first impression you'll get of this Breaking String Theater production of Anton Chekhov's classic play will be a striking one, for Ia Ensterä's set design almost bowls you over. Meant to embody a single, generic room, it's wooden pretty much everywhere you look: wooden plank walls and a raised plank stage surrounded by a border of wood chips. And hanging over it all are the leaves and branches of a dead tree. Depending on the scene, the single room set, augmented by various furniture pieces, represents different rooms in the estate, and it takes up the entire stage space at the Off Center, which makes it a pretty big room. The primary entrances into the space are below the raised stage, so people enter, cross the wood chips, then step up onto the stage. Director and translator Graham Schmidt and designer Ensterä seem to be saying that we are not just surrounded by but also dominated by and at the mercy of a corrupt and dying nature, and we see this idea played out in the action of the story. As the stage space is swallowed on all sides by nature, the characters are swallowed by their own natures, and because they have been corrupted, the decisions they make and actions they take often have nothing to do with right or wrong and everything to do with their own envy, jealousy, and unfulfilled desires.
It's an impressive concept and an impressive design, but the show doesn't impress in quite the same way. The Off Center, being a converted warehouse, is not the most welcoming of performance spaces in terms of environment, and this is particularly true of temperature; it gets hot in Austin in the summertime, which necessitates the use of air conditioning. The AC ran all the way through the show, and while it kept things fairly cool, it also tended to smother the actors' voices. There are some really fine actors in this show – Liz Fisher, Anne Hulsman, Robert Matney, and Matt Radford among them – but if the AC's on, you're probably going to struggle to hear them. And if you're struggling to hear them, then you're definitely struggling to enjoy them.