Crying Uncle

Freehold's actors and a visiting director collaborate on a very Russian Vanya.

BLAME IT ON THE Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky. Or perhaps on Anton Chekhov, the good doctor whose series of comedy-dramas (which includes Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya) was the basis for Stanislavsky’s greatest stage triumphs with his Moscow Arts Theater. Whether it’s because of the writings of the celebrated director-teacher, or the playwright who inspired his early experiments in a new sort of acting, American thespians have been in awe of their Russian counterparts for the better part of this century.

Uncle Vanya

Freehold Studio, July 8-11

Norton Clapp Theater, Jones Hall,

University of Puget Sound, July 15-18

The most famous American theater school, New York’s Actors Studio, was run according to Lee Strasberg’s “Method,” which he claimed was derived directly from the teachings of Stanislavsky. While the Studio’s alumni comprise a who’s who of America’s greatest actors (including Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Al Pacino, and Joanne Woodard), some of Strasberg’s colleagues claimed that he misrepresented the Russian director’s work and that their own teachings were more true to the gospel of Stanislavsky. Even today, more than 60 years after Stanislavsky’s death, new translations and new arguments surface annually.

According to Russian director Leonid Anismov, this signals a fundamental misunderstanding among Americans about Stanislavsky. “When I talk to my actors here about ‘the task,’ they understand me to mean ‘the objective.’ When I say ‘the goal,’ they take it to mean ‘the task.’ We had to spend some time sitting around the table negotiating with each other.” In fact, he’s been working on a dictionary of terms used by the great Russian teacher, with translations in both English and Japanese, to serve as a basis for future projects.

Anismov, a Vladivostok-based director who’s twice brought to Seattle performances by his Chamber Drama Theater Company, recently directed a group of local actors for the inaugural production of the Arts Theater of Puget Sound, a new company founded in collaboration with Seattle’s Freehold Theater Lab Studio, Tacoma’s Little Theater, and Anismov’s own company. He has chosen Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a masterful play about the wonderful and tragic misapplications of love. The celebrated Professor Serebryakov has returned, with his beautiful young wife Yelena, to the country estate that Vanya and his niece Sofya have administered for 20 years. Between the professor’s selfish demands on the household and the attractions of Yelena, the entire family is thrown into chaos, and the ensuing events are a wistful combination of comedy and tragedy.

Speaking through his interpreter, the celebrated and charismatic director (who bears a striking resemblance to the late Donald Pleasance) admits that this is his first time directing Vanya. “I had to think about this play for seven or eight years,” he said. “I have come to the conclusion that the mystery of the Russian soul is in this play. It is very difficult to show this in the performance. Much depends on the actor who plays Vanya.

“Paradoxically, I found the perfect actor for this was not a Russian, but an American. When I first met Mark Jenkins [founder of Freehold and teacher at both Freehold and the UW] two years ago, I began watching him. The more I watched him, the more convinced I became that I had found the actor who could express this great mystery.”

Seen in preview, Jenkins truly is a natural as Vanya, combining lechery with innocence, and intelligence with a forehead-slapping cluelessness, to create a mesmerizing portrait of personal disappointment. “I could have been a Schoepenhauer!” he rages at one point, having reached the excruciating conclusion that he has wasted his his whole life laboring for his sham of a brother-in-law (Edward Payson Call). Jenkins’ Vanya is a domestic Lear-to-be, baffled by the tricks that time and his own failures have led him to.

In fact, there’s very little to criticize in Anismov’s casting, which features such seasoned Seattle veterans as Jenkins, Marjorie Nelson, Althea Hukari, Annette Toutonghi, and Anthony Lee (who’s returned from his successful LA TV career to be in this production), along with a few promising neophytes such as Kat Tait (who’s a luminescent Yelena in a role she shares with Thea Mercouffer).

ANISMOV IS IMPRESSED with his American cast. “They strive to learn and to know, which is a very important quality. They work even harder than Russian actors.” And while he feels that Russian actors have an edge over their American counterparts in that they’re willing to reveal more to an audience, he believes this company is an exception. “This cast is courageous, not afraid to open their heart. It is a very Russian performance.”

The group has been performing in a series of private homes in the Puget Sound area, supported by private patrons who book an evening’s entertainment. “I look on it in the same spirit as renting a beautiful piece of art for the evening,” says Freehold’s board president Richard Hesik, who recently hosted the show at his home. The company brings the show’s run to a close with a series of public performances, first at Freehold Studio, then at the University of Puget Sound.

The show has some stunning moments. The intimate tenderness of a family is subtly drawn, and the play’s last act captures much of the play’s wistfulness, if not always its transcendent mysticism. But it also shows the uncompromising and idiosyncratic imprint of its director. Anismov has insisted on the inclusion of a series of blinds set up between the audience and the actors. “When the audience and the actors are this close to each other, it is very important to have something to separate them, sometimes fabric, sometimes metal—or, in this case, blinds. We have 15 years of experience to show us that this is necessary.”

Necessary, perhaps, but this reviewer found the use of these modern and unattractive screens both irritating and heavy-handed, a constant distraction from the work of the actors.

Similarly, the long running time (the private performance I saw ran over four hours, including intermissions) is justified by what Anismov calls “simple fact.” “Every Chekhov play is its own symphony, and the length of every note is defined by its composer. We have studied this length, and we have come to the conclusion that the correct running time is three hours and five minutes. If we try to make it shorter, we would cut off the important notes of Chekhov.” Yet Louis Malle’s masterful film Vanya on 42nd Street, a filmed version of Andre Gregory’s staged workshop, runs just under two hours. While it’s never entirely fair to equate film to theater performances, Anismov’s production often feels sluggish and occasionally indulgent by comparison.

Future plans for the Arts Theater include collaborations with Russian and Japanese counterparts and eventually a production of Uncle Vanya featuring actors from all three companies speaking in their native languages to each other. Whether this Babel-ish experiment will thrill its audiences as much as the artists participating remains to be seen, but there’s no question that wherever this charismatic Russian director goes, there will be plenty of talented actors in his wake.