Chekhov isn’t really as scary as it sounds

Last weekend I overcame my fear of anything Russian:
Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov.
Last weekend I overcame my fear of anything Russian: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. For example, I’ve started Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” at least four times, failing to make it past the double-digit page numbers. But I always felt like I needed to add these Russian greats to my reading list like fiber to my diet.

During a burst of spontaneity, I booked my ticket for Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the San Jose Stage Company last Friday for the following Sunday’s performance. I wondered … would I really enjoy this? As the woman at the box office said “YES, there are tickets available,” I knew it was too late to back out. I charged the $25 on my Visa, and requested a press packet.

On Sunday, I discovered I was seated in the front-row center-aisle. I hoped I wasn’t getting special treatment because I told them I was with the press. But there really aren’t any bad seats in the small theater.

In his day, Chekhov was known as a master of the short story, and today he is known primarily as a dramatist – or at least that’s what I read in the program before the theater’s lights grew dim. “Uncle Vanya” is considered to be one of Chekhov’s greatest works.

Although I didn’t know anything about Chekhov, nothing would’ve prepared me for the warm, heartbreaking portrayal of the characters on stage. Sonya and her Uncle Vanya are both disappointed in love, giving their hearts to people who don’t love them in return. The beautiful Yelena is married to the old and decrepit professor, but wants a younger husband. We get to glimpse the possibilities. In the end, none of the characters are able to take the steps necessary to escape their unhappy existences.

The characters don’t change at all, but it’s the audience that hopefully changes as a result of seeing the play, said Kelvin Han Yee (Uncle Vanya) in a post-play discussion. For me, I walked out thinking about how the characters wasted their lives, and I hoped not to make the same mistakes

The set combines elements of the outdoors – such as a rope swing – with the main living area of a large estate home, bridging the two settings easily without complicated scene changes. Large bay and madrone tree branches line the stage and the rear of the theater. No trees were harmed in the making of the production. They were donated by a parks volunteer who was clearing trails in one of the nearby county recreation areas.

Really, the play is one of the first to address a “green” theme. The play published in 1897 was fairly progressive, speaking to the effects of deforestation, which the author apparently thought led to the loss of native animal species and significant climate change (among other things). The play carries an equally contemporary urban-versus-rural message, in which the character Mikhail Lvovich Astrov bemoans urban sprawl and all of its related problems.

“Uncle Vanya” is set during the final years of Tsarist Russia. The San Jose Stage Company didn’t change the script despite changing nearly everything else to its more modern equivalent from costumes to props to sound effects. Sonya says she is almost out of ink as she boots up her laptop computer – confusing, yes, but also an interesting juxtaposition of the old and new. It all stresses how what the play means to convey is still applicable today.

In another interesting twist, The Stage attempts to break what in the theater is called “the fourth wall” – the barrier between the the audience and what’s happening on stage. From my front row seat I was practically in the midst of the action with pillows being tossed at my feet. I tried to keep my feet under my seat for fear I would trip the actors as they moved passed me.

“Uncle Vanya” as adapted by David Mamet continues Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 12 at the San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First St. in downtown San Jose. Free parking is located near the theater on San Carlos Street. Tickets range in price from $22 to $30. Call 283-7142 for reservations.

Now to dust off that old copy of “Anna Karenina.”

Leave your comments