Watching Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya a couple of days ago, I was reminded that there was a related play which has been on my Theatre Online list since I began this marathon of reviewing over nine months ago. So, it seemed like an appropriate moment to go back to this. Called Anton’s Uncles it was initially part of Greenwich Theatre’s 12 #FlashbackFriday offerings where they released material from their back catalogue (they are now all available on You Tube). To use the production’s own blurb, it is a “deconstruction of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya”. It is performed by Theatre Movement Bazaar, a Los Angeles based company which “merges elements of dance, text, cinema, and media from diverse sources into a complex performance”.
I’ve heard the term deconstruction applied to the creation of food dishes – chefs pull apart the various components of a recipe and re-present them as separate items – but I think this is the first time I have heard it used in the theatrical world. Here Chekhov’s original text has been filleted down to its essential elements by company co-founders Tina Kronis and Richard Alger. Various aspects of the plot have been emphasised and others entirely sublimated and the whole is served up in a format that departs from the customary realistic portrayal. Most noticeably all the female characters have all but been removed with Yelena referred to and “appearing” as an unseen presence and the others nowhere to be seen. The concentration is on the remaining four male characters, their hopeless infatuations and the disappearance of their hopes and dreams. While this is an interesting idea it does rather unbalance the intentions of the original. Scenes between the various women are cut wholesale, trimming the running time by some fifty percent but, of course, losing much in the process.
The dialogue which is left concentrates on the essence of the male characters and, on occasions, this text gets to the heart of the matter rather more speedily than Chekhov’s more measured approach would normally allow; diversions and discursions are ruthlessly removed. However, it is not all about what has been stripped out. There are additions to the text which emphasise Chekhov’s intention for the play to be comic and the company has put in some neatly organised dance moves, especially in the scene changes, which enhances the visual dimension and gives the reinterpretation a life of its own. The synchronisation is impressive as the four performers find ways to give a physical life to the often unstated frustrations and feelings of their characters. Mark Skeens, Jacxon Danyels, Derrick Oshana and Ernesto Cayabyab are a very well drilled and cohesive quartet under Kronis’s controlled choreography and seamless direction.
Settings are minimalistic – though there is the obligatory samovar – and whirled into existence in various configurations by the performers. Props arrive and disappear via onstage stage manager Kevin Chambers (as opposed to the real offstage stage manager!). For some reason, which I found hard to fathom, he also appears to remind the actor playing Dr Astrov that he should have exited the scene. I can only think that this was a way to remind the audience that they are watching a constructed reality but, hey, I’d already worked that out for myself. I was glad to have seen a more traditional interpretation of Uncle Vanya as recently as the day before as it meant I could follow what TMB was trying to do with their deconstruction. However, rather as with a deconstructed dish of food I was partly left wondering why they had all gone to such efforts to unpick something which had no need of tinkering with. As a quick lunch, Anton’s Uncles has much to recommend it but if you want the full gastronomic experience then head for the original instead.
Anton’s Uncles is available via Greenwich Theatre’s #FlashbackFriday You Tube channel – click here
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