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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Russia with (Tormented) Love, by Eve Silberman

When my book group did the big Chehkov plays last year, I felt disappointed. I'd read somewhere that Chekhov was second only to Shakespeare as a dramatist, but these kvetching bourgeois seemed a far cry from the heartbreaking grandeur of Lear or Hamlet. "Is Chehkhov overrated?" I asked the office Ph.D. He looked scornful, but reminded me I was reading "in translation."

Turns out that what's lost in translation on the page can still come alive in theater. In the current production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Power Center, the cast--from the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg--spoke Russian; English supertitles flashed above. Nutshell summary: aging, acclaimed Professor Serebryakov and his gorgeous young wife, Elena, show up at the family's country estate looked over by Uncle Vanya and Serebryakov's "plain" daughter from his previous marriage, Sonya. Sonya is in love with the local physician, who falls for Elena, as does Uncle Vanya. Yep, they all whine a lot about their thwarted desires.

I ushered for the play on a "student night," when the tickets are discounted. Almost everyone there was younger than I (excepting my fellow ushers), which may explain the conversation I heard afterward among four bemused looking U-M students in the lobby. "That was strange!" said one kid. Replied another, "Were those people geeky or what?"

Geeky? Nyet! This is one of the few examples of pure ensemble theater I've seen: no one actor stood out and yet they all did (though if you ask me, the actress playing Sonya could not be called "plain"). The actors were so good that even in Russian, their chatter was more absorbing than physical action in lesser plays. Collectively, they turned the characters' carping into something grander: an articulation of the disappointment most adults carry as we realize the disconnect between our dreams and the way our lives have played out. Give those kids thirty years and they'll see the power of Chehkov, too.

posted by John Hilton at 6:37 p.m. | 0 comments


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