Cutting Ball's 'Vanya' Tries Everything

Paige Rogers, founder and former artistic director of Cutting Ball Theater, knows that the central issue of any production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is how to make it natural. Not realistic, that’s another problem that the play and this production defies over and over again, but natural, as if what we’re seeing is life itself spilling out one sloppy moment after another.

The story is simple. Vanya sacrificed money and social standing for what he felt was the glory of his family and the happiness of his sister. Those sacrifices, both simple and worthy, turn into a disaster after his sister dies and his brother-in-law, the pompous academic, Aleksandr Serebryakova, ascends to the head of the family. Vanya and his niece, the hapless Sonya, run the family’s rural estate that, in turn, supports the Professor and his new, young wife’s lavish, lush life in the city.

There’s enough resentment and self-pity here that you could mistake 1890’s Russia for our dear America. When family friend Dr. Astrov pleads with anyone who will listen to protect the environment, the play feels prescient—who could have guessed that an alcoholic, country doctor would have glimpsed global warming so long ago. And it’s right in line with Chekhov’s vision of life: everyone can sense the nasty surprises coming along, but they don’t have half a chance of stopping, or even slowing down the inevitable catastrophes.

Rogers and company makes many intelligent and game choices—too many to my mind—to try to catch Chekhov’s tricky mix of casual cruelty and metaphysical histrionics. First and foremost, there is the beautiful set. The playing area is a simple rectangle, the short ends sealed off by metal scaffolds that rise to what feel like the heavens.

Two identical microphones hang from the grid and the way they face off on opposite sides of the stage, we can kind of intuit that the dominant metaphor here is going to be wrestling—with one’s conscience, the forces of nature, God, our failures, everything and nothing. How the cast employs those microphones speaks directly to the strengths and weakness of Roger’s conception of naturalism and the problems of producing Vanya.

When the play begins with Yelena lip-syncing some Latin ditty while the rest of the cast lackadaisically joins in on the chorus, you think, this is not going to end well, or at least it’s not starting well. But then the pyrotechnics fade, the play begins, the production calms down, and we can start to feel how Rogers’ ideas might illuminate the play.

Early on Sonya wishes to convince Vanya that Astrov’s environmental concerns are not only just, but also beautiful—she loves him with all the might of the unrequited. Alive with admiration and false hope she reaches for a microphone and speaks past Vanya to us, as if she always knew that there would be some future audience for this moment.

Forests alleviate a climate’s harshness. In countries with a gentle climate less energy is spent on struggle with nature, and so man is gentler there, more delicate; people are handsome, versatile, easily aroused, their speech is refined, their movements graceful.

The slight amplification under these noble sentiment works like a balm against her yearning. Sonya’s desire to fuse learning, social care, and love is laid bare for all to hear. We know that can’t work, even as she wishes everyone in the world to know that this is what is in her heart. And you could say about this decidedly unrealistic moment: could any other staging come across as more natural.

It’s a lovely moment, but too often Rodgers lets the effect run rampant and the actors use the microphone to emphasize a word or a phrase. Instead of furthering any understanding of character or situation, the gesture feels showy, a cabaret act rather than a true revelation. And at those moments you sense how unsettled the production is in its choices.

There’s a lovely bit of choreography between Vanya and Elena where they circle each other and freeze over and over again. As in the case of Sonya’s speech, that isn’t realistic—we don’t repeatedly freeze in real life—but from our perspective there’s a truth to what we’re seeing. The problem is that Rodgers doesn’t let the scene play out. Vanya grabs the mike, things get gimmicky, and the scene loses momentum and coherence.

What had the fluidity of dance suddenly feels easy and busy—just like the addition of the show tune that opens the play. You never want to shut down experimentation; it’s just that not every bit of creative daring is created equal and some of it is neither creative nor daring.

Cutting Ball’s Vanya is in no way a failure and it possesses a good deal of pleasure, but in giving too much, we get too little of what should have been a much better and more complete production.

Two More Observations, the last a kind of Idea

What Rodgers wants to accomplish—a kind of unrealistic naturalism—is a difficult one for actors to navigate. Where the cast is generally strong, only Adam Magill as Astrov and Haley Bertelsen as Sonya seem truly comfortable walking that tricky line.

What I’m going to say next is completely unrealistic and unfair, but the problem here is rehearsal time and how theaters produce work. Cutting Ball’s Vanya feels like a very well-rehearsed first draft, where everything was attempted and nothing rejected. You wonder what might have happened if they had spent an equal amount of time with a scalpel, paring closer and closer to the bone until every effect was either excised or found its way into the blood of Chekhov’s stunning play.

‘Uncle Vanya’ runs to October 21 at the Exit on Taylor in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.