Saturday, December 22, 2012

Random Shooting

A bomb dropped on a metropolis will do a massive damage unlike a bomb dropped on a rural area; similarly, a random shooting in a vast farmland will kill perhaps one unfortunate farmer and injure a cow or two but a random shooting in a dense urban area will easily massacre a hundred citizens at once. A stringent control of firearms may not be called for in the countryside but mandatory in cities and certainly in any crowded place.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Soho Rep's Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is one of the most frequently performed   I saw two productions in 2012, two in 2010, and three more in 2003. 

The latest Uncle Vanya was the Soho Rep’s production last summer (07.29.12), the highlight of the season, based on the new vernacular translation by Annie Baker (the author of Circle Mirror Transformation. for which she received OBIE Award for Best New American Play). For older plays -- like Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw -- I am partial to the "stilted" language appropriate to the period costumes.  But in this version, the production itself, directed by Sam Gold, was consistently "naturalist" to fit the language of Baker's translation, and it was very impressive. In the tiny space, which is normally a black box, seats were arranged on two stepped rows of platform on the long sides where we sit as on the floor, nine places in each row, and  four rows of five places on the two narrow ends accommodating altogether an audience of 76.  The scene consisted of a wooden open-rafter ceiling over the central arena space, with faked skylights, a few sofas and armchairs, a little table with a samovar, then a large sign over one narrow side saying Uncle Vanya in Cyrillic alphabet ДЯДЯ ВАНЯ.  These two scene components together with the Russian addresses (like Ivan Petrovich and Sofia Alexandrovna) and the Russian folk song by a guitarist during the scene changes created effectively the Russian atmosphere; the costume is contemporary as is the acting style in conformity with the very vernacular speech. The effect is that the audience is made to feel like casual guests to the household where a family drama is enacted; it's like being in the home of a distant relative populated with family members and their friends and neighbors, coming and going, and you are sort of watching the goings-on from the periphery.  The characters talking as they exited to the corners of the arena really sounded like they were heard speaking from another room.  In the second half, Act III and IV, the samovar and most of the furniture were removed, and the characters often sat on the floor like the audience themselves. In short, it was lifelike in the feel of immediacy, the opposite of being stagey; and all the actors were wonderful performers, truly responding to each other rather than from a scripted speech.  

Earlier in the same week (07.26.12), I went to see Uncle Vanya in the production of the Sydney Theatre Company, featuring Cate Blanchett.  Ben Brantley of New York Times, evidently madly in love with Blanchett, extolled the work as striking a difficult balance between tragedy and comedy.  She was no doubt delightful. But she overacted and thus drew too much attention to herself, often with uncalled-for laugh gags, evidently the choice of Andrew Upton, the co-director and her husband. Chekhov, to be sure, called his earlier play The Wood Goblin a comedy, of which Uncle Vanya was a later elaboration, as he did Ivanov and The Cherry Orchard, but  the subtitle he gave Uncle Vanya was Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, adopted from Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. The play, so overwrought, becomes too consciously a performance for the audience.  For the intimate scene at the end of Act II between Yelena and Sofia/Sonya, in the Sydney production, for example, they inconsiderately romp around having a pillow fight; in the Soho Rep, production, they sit close to each other cross-legged under a dimmed light and giggle and cry like two teenage girls in a bedroom but quietly so as not to disturb the professor, very touchingly and appropriately since, when they are prompted to dance together, Sofia goes out to ask him if it is all right to play the piano and comes back to report that he said no.

Lev Dodin’s Uncle Vanya in Russian, performed at BAM in 2010 (04.10) by his Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, was intensely theatrical with the title role assertively acted by Sergey Kuryshev as also characterized by the three huge haystacks in the set, oppressive and yet assuring.  It was impressive most of all in the tight ensemble playing achieved, as is well known, in the extensive rehearsal in which actors are said to learn all the roles (within the gender line) so that each actor knew in performance all others in their roles intimately and empathetically.  This perhaps accounted for the remarkably rich expression of intermingled frustration, anger, sympathy, compassion, hope, and resignation, not simply melancholy.   I found the intimate scene of Elena/Yelena and Sonya very moving; I found certain deliberate emblematic details, like Professor Serebryakov’s galoshes in full view of all, expressive of his authority and dominance over the family even in absentia. Acting was so precise, in fact, that (knowing the play well enough in advance, of course) we could see what was going on and almost understand what was being said without reading the subtitle (as was the case, too, in their Three Sisters last April).  It was very Russian, and memorable.

The merit of Boomerang Theatre’s Uncle Vanya, seen later in the same year (10.10.10), was clarity rather than depth, competently performed by eager actors, enjoyable as an exercise for the audience to get acquainted with the play for the first time or for going over it as a review. 

David Mamet’s 1991 PBS version on PBS, which I saw on tape early in 2003 (02.04) was, not surprisingly, more Mamet than Chekhov, with an uneven cast and haphazard acting, with Ian Holm’s Dr. Astrov the only vaguely remembered element in the production. It lacked humor and hence Chekhovian irony.  Three weeks earlier (01.13.03) there was also a production by the now defunct Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater, which made the satire more fully into a comedy with a sudden turn to tragedy near the end.  Between these two (01.28.03), I was at BAM when London’s Donmar Warehouse performed their Uncle Vanya in Brian Friel’s new translation, directed by Sam Mendes (in repertory with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). It boasted a simple but effective set and a stellar casting -- Simon Russell Beale (Vanya), Emily Watson (Sonya), Helen McCrory (Yelena), and Mark Strong (Astrov); acting was good.  Still, there was something in Mendes’ direction that left me unconvinced.  It lacked the cohesiveness that made the Soho Rep’s production so satisfying, despite the discomfort of sitting crosslegged for two hours, and so vividly memorable.

Violent Society

A society that celebrates violence cannot escape being a violent society, and it is doomed to remain violent with no escape from violent actions since it is incapable of censuring them.  It is not enough to tolerate violence to create a peaceable society; it must actively condemn it.  The recent mass massacre in a Connecticut school, a rerun of the Columbine massacre, makes it patent that the problem lies in our society’s underlying violence.

Psychologically unstable individuals existed everywhere at all times and always do, and one way or another, one time or another, they work havoc; there is no way preventing it, no way even predicting it.  But before the age of fire arms, the damage was small. A gun can slaughter many in a single action.  Gun control, even if less aimlessly debated than heretofore, is no solution. Guns are already widely spread among the citizens; there are too many supporters of gun sales; and restricting sales and possessions will only promote undercover gun trade.  The proposal to arm school principals and teachers is insane; the proposal to man school yards with police is absurd.  Improving mental health care is no guarantee that potential malefactor can be so easily identified in advance of acting out their violent fantasies. 

It is essential that the society realizes that children taught that the show of physical strength -- in the form of hitting and clobbering -- is bravery as a way of solving a conflict or of defending one’s right grow into adults with a penchant for destruction of property and lives as a means of resolving anger, general or targeted.  Teaching children to manage anger without violence early in life is of utmost importance; and yet they are today given, if not toy guns, full exposure to fashionable movies and video games which inculcate in them the excitement of vicarious shooting and killing.  It is sad that politicians are virtually silent on this obvious fact; it is deplorable that the media is failing to address this point.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I say humbly that everything I do is amateurish, even in my professional pursuits, but I take the liberty of understanding the term amateur in its literal but also true sense as it was adopted in 18th century England, together with its Italian counterpart dilettante, referring to a person who is truly, thoroughly, and totally in love with whatever is the object of her or his pursuit.  In this sense, I am a proud dilettante, humbly.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Soho Rep Proudly Presents. . .

The Soho Rep’s latest presentation carries a memorably ridiculous title: We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915. The play concerns the genocide of a Bantu tribe early in the 20th century. Meta-theater in itself is not a new idea; but the playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury, setting up the event as a rehearsal in search of the characters. The play opens with the announcement of the play’s subject and the unnamed characters. Then, the development from the playfully awkward first scenes to the culminating drama of high emotion. in which the rehearsing actors find themselves intractably enmeshed in, was ingenious, powerful, and totally engaging. The audience seated on folding chairs closing in on the action is forcibly drawn into experiencing the actor’s emotions. No less than the playwright, the director Eric Ting’s craft, especially in the use of the pauses and declamations was truly admirable as was the work of the lighting and sound designers.