January 9th, 2012

Uncle Vanya: A Classical Theatre Company Production

Are we in bed with the Classical Theatre Company? No, but maybe we wish we were. They know all the old moves and provide them with a new twist. Perhaps we wouldn’t want to take on Uncle Vanya, though. He seems like he would be a solemn, selfish and distracted lover. What else would you expect from Anton Chekhov?

To start off the 2011-2012 season, Classical Theatre Company takes on its first Russian classic play. First published in 1897, Uncle Vanya tells the tale of lives wasted and futile reality. A vast majority of the characters lament their languished existence. In essence, Uncle Vanya provides us a glimpse at the parallels of 1897 Russia and 2012 Houston where only the venues change from rural estates to urban sprawls.

Vanya (Philip Lehl) along with his niece Sonya (Eva Laporte) toil away on the family farm in order to send the profits off to the retired professor Serebryakov (Carl Masterson) and his young, beautiful wife Helena (Tracie Thomason) so they might live a life of means. Confrontation begins to boil over when the professor moves into the estate which affects everything from the daily meal schedule to the boiling lust of Vanya for his brother-in-law’s gorgeous bride.

[Pictured: Philip Lehl (Vanya) and David Matranga (Astrov)]

The plot gets further complicated with the presence of the doctor, Astrov (David Matranga). The eco-friendly physician who is onsite to treat Serebryakov finds himself under the spell of Helena, but has earned the affections of Sonya during his many years of friendship to Vanya. What a tangled web…

For those of you trying to keep track: Sonya loves Astrov, but he and Vanya love Helena who is married to Serebryakov, but might return Astrov’s feelings. All the while Serebryakov loves his life of leisure and letters. And that’s just the love quadrangle which only provides one thematic element to the play.

The other, more important, aspect to Uncle Vanya is the battle of what we have to do versus what we want to do. Vanya believes his life of providing for the professor’s career in writing has left him feelings of being jilted out of becoming the next Schopenhauer or Dostoyevsky. Helena is trapped in a marriage that’s love has faded over time. The doctor finds himself unchallenged by his calling and wishes for a life in which he’s the original Planeteer. Sonya wants a life in which she’s pretty enough to gain Astrov’s affections. All these people are brought together because of Serebryakov who’s own pursuit for fame as an art critic is completely futile and rejects the help of doctors trying to cure his gout.

[Pictured: Tracie Thomason (Helena) and Eva Laporte (Sonya)]

Classical Theatre Company’s director and cast make the most of the complexity of Chekhov’s dark comedy. From the top down, the cast turns in a solid as Philip Lehl takes on the titular character, Vanya creating a man in which we can instantly identify ourselves. His deliveries are smooth and eloquent yet easy on the audience and ever with a hint of comedy (helped by the seemingly Walter Matthau-like accent with which he speaks). Tracie Thomason places Helena is preposterously detached from reality, a beautiful stage that glides around stage trying to refrain from participating in the familial chaos.

It was all put together by out-of-town director, John Houchin. At one time, he was the professor of Classical Theatre Company’s Executive Artistic Director John Johnston. For Uncle Vanya’s run, he was brought in town be his former pupil to command the Russian reigns and has done so to the audiences delight. Our other, more accomplished and learned theatre reviewer had this to say about the production:

“I’ve never seen it done with quite so much dark humor. It felt like Kubrick-meets-the-Russians.  I thought that Elena was almost too perfect until she started breaking with her own self control and then the overly proper diction finally made sense – funny for the sake of contrast. Uncle Vanya (Philip Lehl) was one of the most natural actors I’ve seen in a while – never forced a line, just found them conversationally. And was I the only one who really really wanted to give Sonya a hug by the time it was all over?”

Uncle Vanya is a slow boil of a play, so be prepared. There is a huge payoff by the time you get to the end of Act III which I’ve tried to avoid revealing. I’d rather you see the play for yourself than just read about all the action from an amateur reviewer.

When it comes down to it, Classical Theatre Company has dusted off a forgotten masterpiece of the stage that deserves your attention. Uncle Vanya is especially appealing to all the cynics out there that feel like they’ve been pigeon-holed in their nine-to-five monotony. We’re all destined for greater things, right? We would recommend not asking that of a Russian playwright; especially Anton Chekhov in this case.

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Produced by Classical Theatre Company
At Talento Bilingue de Houston

January 5th through January 22nd, 2012 ($18 General Admission)
Monday and Thursday-Saturday at 7:30PM
Sundays at 2:30PM

— Paul


Buzz Bellmont — Tuesday, January 10, 2012 2:08 pm

What I detest about most reviews—-too much synopsis—not enough critique.

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