Way off Off Broadway came to Ann Arbor by way of the Carriage House Theatre, a new group that’s presenting Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a hundred-year-old barn on Third Street. The play opened June 23 and completes its run with shows at 8 p.m. June 30-July 2.
The theater began when nineteen-year-old impresario, director, and stage manager Forrest Hejkal, opened the door to his friend Jane Pollock’s backyard barn one day last spring and was gripped by inspiration. This decrepit, filthy, junk-stuffed, two-story barn could be the summer theater setting of his dreams. His troupe would be gathered from the ashes of the late Lights Up Company of the Ann Arbor Young Actors Guild.
With Jane’s initially dubious encouragement and the assistance of his father, Steve Hejkal, a skilled carpenter, Forrest set about restoring the barn. He carted away the junk, evicted critters, repaired the roof, restored the rutted floor to a smooth, level surface, propped up the foundation, and cleaned off decades of cobwebs and dirt. The final touches were installing lighting inside and creating an eight-foot fabric sign for the theater’s entrance. Forrest’s mother, who attended the second night’s performance, confided that he’d stayed up until 3:00 a.m. making the sign, using large iron-on letters which he spaced perfectly in a graceful arch over the troupe’s sunflower logo, Finished, and hanging on the front of the barn, it looked slickly professional.
The cheapest possible white plastic armchairs were arrayed around the perimeter of the barn’s interior for audience seating. Actors entered and exited from a stairway at the back of the barn that led to the former hayloft.
Five-dollar donations contribute to expenses, which include printing a postcard announcement and a program with an arresting graphic on the cover. The company expects to present at least one more play this summer before the actors disperse to their various colleges.
Cast members Brooklyn Dimitrie, in the title role, Avery Koenig, Libby Masaracchia, Angie Feak, Robyn Taylor, Griffin Johnson, Jeff
Crandall, Margaret Remboski, and Scott Crandall also double as sound and light crew.
As to why he chose this play, Hejkal says in his Program Notes, “Quite frankly, I didn’t. The space chose it. I knew as soon as I began considering converting the carriage house into a theater that I wanted to make the building itself the set, and Uncle Vanya [which takes place in a rustic country house] presented itself as an excellent candidate.”
The audience on the first weekend soon realized that this was no amateur production of Uncle Vanya, as the troupe performed as well as any professional group in town, or Off Broadway, for that matter. Blending several modern translations, director Hejkal managed to avoid the dated stiffness of earlier productions of Chekhov, and soon the audience was caught up in the characters’ sometimes sorrowful, sometimes vociferous, regrets over wasted lives and impossible loves.
Late in the second act a black and white cat strolled through the side door of the theater and circled the room, seductively rubbing the shins of each audience member in turn, and then exited as she came, having solicited quietly amused smiles all around except from the actors, who were involved in discussing who was secretly in love with whom.
During intermission some of the audience sprinted to the Washtenaw Dairy for cones. Though this was solstice week, it was getting dark as they returned. Director Hejkal had appeared, having come from his actor’s gig at Blackbird Theater’s Shakespeare West. An animated, good looking, if slight man, his deep set eyes had dark circles, perhaps from many late nights preparing for the opening. Wearing jeans and a sport jacket, he looked exactly the part of a seasoned theater director.
During the last two acts the drama intensified, as Vanya’s rage and envy at being unrecognized for his effort to maintain an oblivious professor’s estate, as well as everyone’s crisscrossed suppressed desires, were revealed, culminating in shots fired.
Then, stage right, entered a firefly. Even during the occasional blackout required to change a scene, the firefly maintained its slow, golden glimmer here and there.
After hearty applause when the play came to its unexpectedly quiet conclusion, the audience exited into the peaceful gloom of the Old West Side where more of the season’s first fireflies helped celebrate one of Ann Arbor’s most perfect evenings.
For more information visit facebook.com/carriage.house.theatre