Review: Uncle Vanya

by Sara Liner, March 27, 2010

For the last few weeks, among the rose bushes and Rhododendrons at the Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg, a tan circus tent has stood. You might expect to find within its walls, given the tent’s location and the time of year, a wedding party or a plant nursery. However, if you traverse the path, pull back the flap and walk through, you will find yourself in what appears to be a Russian home at the turn of the 20th century. There is a kitchen table with fruit and cheese, a bottle of vodka. Multi-colored pallets are laid out thoughtfully by local woodworker and set designer Matthew Strong, suggesting a hardwood floor and staircase. To either side of this runway-like layout, 40 or so mismatched antique chairs are set out as though company is expected. It is. Rock the Ground Theater Company’s production of Uncle Vanya has been playing to sold-out crowds and this weekend is your last chance to see it.

In constant character, the actors enter and exit the stage from passageways behind the seats, adding all the more to the feeling that you are in someone’s home. In effect the audience members become extras, watching the back and forth action of the play across from each other, like spectators at a tennis match, or as Hugh Dignon, who plays Uncle Vanya, suggests: like witnesses to ghosts playing out the most important day of their lives in perpetuity.

Such is the beauty of a well-interpreted and produced Chekhov play. “What’s important in Chekov is what’s not said…He was this great poet of subtext,” says Dignon, who first played the role of Vanya in the 1970s at Vassar College. What might read flatly on the page is brought lovingly and thoughtfully to life under the direction of Jonathan Haugen, who has spent ten seasons working with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In what spare time he has, Haugen collaborates with friend and founder Hugh Dignon on productions for Rock the Ground Theater Company.

There is a timelessness to Uncle Vanya: The distinction between past and present, audience and cast, seems obsolete. The layout of the set leaves the audience no choice but to become engaged. It is not hard to imagine the audience as extended members of Uncle Vanya’s family, watching the tragicomic struggles of their ancestors, realizing that in the hundred years since the play’s inception, not much about the human condition has changed.

Uncle Vanya touches upon themes of duty and faith versus living for the moment, catching one’s pleasure where one can. Uncle Vanya is a man in crisis who, after a lifetime of devoting himself to ideals of loyalty, scholarship, hard work and family, finds himself let down by human fallibility. He fears that through his blind devotion to his ideals he has squandered away his life and any real chance at happiness. “Conviction alone,” Vanya’s mother tells him, “means nothing. It is what you do with your convictions that count.” Uncle Vanya’s unraveling occurs over four acts, and while he is the title character of the play, the struggles of conscience and identity of those around him are equally on display.

If this all sounds too heavy for a night of entertainment, keep in mind that Uncle Vanya is touted as a comedy. There is something darkly humorous about how seriously we take ourselves, how given to flights of fancy and self-delusion we are. There is something beautiful about it as well: that there are moments where we can extract joy and beauty from what otherwise might seem like an endless stream of hardship and disappointment. The line between hysteria and hilarity is well walked by the cast: their performances lead to moments neither too melodramatic nor too absurd to find resonance with the audience.

Rock the Ground Theater Company is relatively new--but it enlists the talents of a veritable A-team of actors, musicians and artisans who in one form or another have come to think of Mendocino as their true home. Their aesthetic is part literary canon, part rock’n’roll: in 2009, Rock the Ground produced Rocky Horror Picture Show on weeknights and Hamlet on weekends, using much of the same cast and crew for both. The name itself is a reference to A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream: “Sound Music! Come my Queen, take hands with me, and rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.” Indeed, Rock the Ground is waking up our local arts scene. They take the Do-It-Yourself attitude of punk and temper it with the sort of prowess that comes only from years of experience, study and craft.

“What I see as being part of Rock the Ground’s mission statement is contemporary innovation through traditional roots,” says contributing artist Lavender Grace Cinnamon.

Take, for example, the fact that Rock The Ground has no fixed venue or theater out of which they work. This mobility allows Rock the Ground to consider the actual physical setting of their productions, alongside the set itself. In the instance of Uncle Vanya the Botanical Gardens as venue seemed a perfect fit. “We were looking at different venues…we looked at doing it in a converted barn…we looked at doing it in a house. But there is an environmental message to this play, that Jonathan [Haugen, director] and I felt should be emphasized. The leitmotif of deforestation runs through this play so deep and this issue really was Chekov’s passion…it’s just so fitting to do it in a garden where everything is kept growing and healthy,” says Dignon. On the table for Rock the Ground Theater Company’s 2010 season is an outdoor summer production of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, and an aquatic production of Metamorphoses if they can swing the right venue.

It is inspiring to see a collective of artists who are pooling their years of experience, education and craft to create something which feels genuinely new and exciting for Mendocino. If at all possible, get out to see Uncle Vanya this final weekend.

Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday 2pm matinée. Tickets available at Twist in Mendocino, Tangents, Harvest Market and The Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg.

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