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Captive characters in need of some levity

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From left, At Home Theatre's John Bluethner, Susanna Portnoy and Brian Richardson present a double bill.

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO Enlarge Image

From left, At Home Theatre's John Bluethner, Susanna Portnoy and Brian Richardson present a double bill.

Down the Russian road from the country estate where Constantine offered his beloved Nina that dead seagull is Uncle Vanya's decaying family spread.

The inhabitants are no happier there. Everyone feels trapped in this boring backwater, itching to escape their dull lives and desperate to convince someone to return their love. Nothing ever happens, so it's the ideal setting for a play by Anton Chekhov, who never bothered with much plot.

In his 1898 comic drama Uncle Vanya, presented by the Tara Players as part of ChekhovFest, the playwright presents a collection of scenes of rural life and routine actions. Telegin, a goofy neighbour whose station in society has suffered "a dip," is quietly strumming his guitar while Vanya is asleep on the sofa. The company's small stage reflects the household's confinement and captivity. Their resigned status is disturbed by the arrival of visitors who stir up dormant hopes and resentments.

The Tara Players are only semi-successful in stirring strong emotion from the adaptation by Brian Friel, the Irish playwright who found that his countrymen have much in common with the Russian soul.

Director Ray Cloutier has not yet found the right Chekhovian balance between the tragic and the comic, allowing the whinging to overwhelm this 150-minute downer. A bit more biting humour would have been appreciated.

Chekhov's catalysts in Uncle Vanya are the title character's brother-in-law, a pompous professor named Serebryakov, and his beautiful, much younger second wife, Yelena. Her presence has drawn the romantic interest of both Vanya and the virile but self-loathing bachelor Dr. Astrov.

Serebryakov technically owns the estate that Vanya and his young niece Sonya run for his benefit. The announcement that he plans to sell the place from under them and buy a swanky villa triggers a realization that they have wasted their lives supporting this poser.

The acting is not as always crisp as required to allow the play's sense of futility to take hold, but the cast comes together for an affecting finale, as an appalled Vanya realizes he has squandered the best years of his life. Actor Rob Kwade finds all Vanya's anguish after he is dismissed as a non-entity by Serebryakov. He rages that he could have been a Schopenhauer, could have been a Dostoyevsky -- at least a contender.

The troublesome guests leave and not much has changed, other than some terrible self-knowledge to go with the return to drudgery for Vanya and Sonya.

Angela Rajfur's Sonya is portrayed as a capable young woman, which makes her silent pain at being ignored by the object of her desire, Astrov, all the more moving. She beautifully handles the heartbreaking "we must go on living" speech about enduring hope and redemption that ends Uncle Vanya.

Erik Fjeldsted plays Astrov with an assurance that would explain his attractiveness to the opposite sex. Megan Andres communicates Yelena's boredom with being a trophy wife, a role that demands little more than having to look pretty.

Tara Players have fashioned a creditable production that doesn't capture all that Chekhov offers.

-- -- --

This double bill opens with an Inside the Actors Studio-style interview with Olga Knipper, the actress who was the leading lady of both Anton Chekhov's plays and his life.

For festival-goers, the Q&A session is an entertainingly informative way to gain more insight into the man from an inside source. Knipper, elegantly turned out in a black dress and white jacket, remembers that it wasn't love at first sight with the playwright and that their wooing was done mostly through letters, which began stiffly with "Dear Actress" or "Dear Author."

Knipper was present for most of Chekhov's openings and offers an interesting explanation as to why The Seagull was booed so lustily by audience members at its 1896 première.

Brian Richardson possesses the perfect voice for the interviewer but is tentative with the material, causing the pace to slow unnecessarily and making the 60-minute session feel too long. Susanna Portnoy is better at inhabiting Chekhov's "little German," but the piece's charm is reduced by the obvious need for more rehearsing.

The stage livens significantly with the crowd-pleasing one-act comedy The Bear. Portnoy plays Elena Popova, a widow devoted to mourning a husband who often strayed. Her shut-in life is invaded by a loud boor named Smirnov, demanding repayment of his 1,200-ruble debt. She asks him to wait two days, but he needs the cash immediately to pay his bills.

He refuses to leave until he gets his money, triggering a battle of wills. Their mutual loathing soon, of course, sparks a romantic attraction.

John Bluethner easily sells Smirnov's sudden infatuation with Popova and generates plenty of laughs doing it (although the loudest was generated unintentionally by both chairs breaking). Portnoy is his equal as the feisty Popova when the duelling pistols come out. Richardson, as the servant Luka, also joins the fun.

For festival-goers feeling the melancholy of Chekhov's major plays, The Bear serves as a comic tonic.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2014 D3

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