On Poets, Madmen, and The Wisdom To Know The Difference

This Saturday was another theatre-filled day in Ilana-land! First, I spent most of it at rehearsal! I’m acting again for the first time since undergrad in the upcoming Playwrights’ Festival, which plays on October 26th and 27th at the Delray Beach Playhouse. Four short plays are playing on Saturday night and four different short plays are playing on Sunday afternoon, but since I’m cast in two of them, you’ll get to catch me no matter which day you attend!

Obviously, the two hours I spent rehearsing and the four hours I spent bopping around at the playhouse between my first call time and my second one did not fulfill my insatiable appetite for theatrics. So it was straight from there to a production of Uncle Vanya at Florida Atlantic University (FAU)’s Studio One theatre. I’d never read the play or seen anything by Chekov performed in full before, but I’ve studied Three Sisters and The Seagull in depth for some of my acting and writing classes and I have a basic understanding of the playwright’s reputation as one of the fathers of modernism—and for writing real downers.

I get why Chekov is still a lot people’s jam almost a century and a quarter after his death. Dysfunctional families, broken dreams, and existential ennui just never go out of style! FAU’s production featured a pretty outstanding cast composed of graduate and undergraduate students, some of whom did quite a good job playing characters very different in age than themselves. It also had the advantage of some interesting directorial choices. A director’s note by Desmond Gallant stated his desire to “highlight the inherent comedy” in Chekov’s writing as opposed to dwelling on the characters’ anguish.

I think that this was the right approach. The situations of the characters in Uncle Vanya are so obviously unpleasant that their misery will come through whether or not it is emphasized, so we may as well get in as many laughs in as we can along the woeful ride. I certainly found myself chuckling quite a bit, even during the play’s most dramatic confrontations—actually, maybe especially during the play’s most dramatic confrontations.

Initially, I wondered if Christian Mouisset’s stiffness and nervousness as Doctor Astrov may have been awkward acting, but as the play went on, it became clearer that it was the anxiety of an alcoholic character in a sober moment. Later, Mouisset made such a believable drunk that I found myself wondering whether any of that stage vodka was real. He also had real chemistry with Kailey Jones, who played Sonya.

Their two characters were both so good-hearted and earnest that you couldn’t help but hope that they could somehow make their way to happiness with each other. But this being a Chekov play, I knew better than to expect such a thing, so Sonya’s giddiness when she thinks her affections for Astrov may be returned was tremendously devastating.

A hallmark of Chekovian tragedies is that the characters are trapped at least as much by their inertia and their self-pity as by their circumstances. Though Vanya’s crazed conviction that he could have been the next Dostoevsky if he had not spent his whole life as all but a slave to his egotistical brother-in-law Alexander, he certainly could have amounted to more than the servant he is; if he had made the effort to stand up for himself and break away!

The couple behind me talked quite a bit during the show. During one particularly desperate speech of Vanya’s, I heard them quite loudly call the character “Pathetic.” He was. They all were.
But I know that I’ve gone on plenty of rants that were just as or more pathetic as his. Chekov is an expert at portraying the familiar, circular debates that take place in an unhappy household. In a play like Uncle Vanya, we recognize ourselves onstage, and we wish we hadn’t. To borrow a quote from one of my best directors, “the most terrifying thing about these characters is how relatable they are.”

Power and status seems to be no guard against despair in a Chekovian vision; even the relatively privileged Yelena, Alexander and Doctor are still utterly miserable. It was also pretty striking that the characters who were most unfortunate were least vocal about their stations; for example, Nanny’s physical state is nearly as bad as Alexander’s and she has spent her whole life serving him and his family and listening to their complaints and drudgery. Likewise, Telegin’s wife left him on the day after they were married and his acne earned him the humiliating nickname Waffles, but he doesn’t spend the whole play moping about it!

I had some initial sympathy for Alexander after seeing him in so much pain, perhaps due in part to actor Ryan Page’s exquisitely realistic portrayal of that pain during his character’s first scene. However, this goodwill faded as the extent to which he has exploited his brother in law and his daughter became clear. As for Yelena, I actually may have had more sympathy for her if she had cheated on her husband rather than ignored the affections of two men (Astrov and Vanya) who were head over heels for her while constantly complaining about bored and unhappy she was.

But perhaps the most miserable characters are Sonia and Vanya. It seems as if they were most tortured not by their circumstances but by the thought that they had been wronged by fate, that they could have and should have transcended them. For Sonya, had she only been more beautiful, or, for Vanya, had he only not gotten caught in Alexander’s web.

Thanks to a warning posted in the lobby and a reiteration of that warning in the preshow announcement, I knew a gun would be fired at some point during the show (sort of gives “Chekov’s Gun” a new meaning, doesn’t it?), but what I didn’t expect is for no one to die! Instead, Vanya threatens to kill Alexander when he announces his plans to sell the estate he and Sonia had worked so hard preserve, then threatens to kill himself, but in the end has to courage to do neither.

By that point, it may have been a nobler end if Vanya had just cried “uncle” and done it instead of survive to continue complaining about how miserable he is; and yet isn’t the thought that the character would be somehow less pathetic if he’d had the guts to end his life a sort of sick one?

There was still a whole Act 4 to go, and I spent it half expecting some big twist, like the doctor using the morphine he takes back from Uncle Vanya (another potential suicide attempt of his) on himself. But no, besides the fact that Yelena and Alexander had escaped the morass, things were just going to go on quietly sucking as usual. That much stagnancy and disappointment is a heavy burden to carry despite the cast’s continual efforts to liven things up.

That act seemed to drag despite their best efforts, and I interpreted Sonia’s long final speech as depressingly delusional rather than genuinely transcendent. Like Sonya and Vanya, I was just ready for it all to end, though I did enjoy the funny stage business during the show’s curtain call after it did!

Really, I should’ve just been thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t them. My prospects for a happy future are not yet as entirely vanished as Sonia’s, Vanya’s, and Yelena’s seem to be….are they? Some plays really make you think twice!

Whether you want to focus on the tragic aspects of Uncle Vanya or the comedic ones, there’s no reason to miss out on this great production of a classic, which plays through this October 6th. Many of the play’s lines are positively timeless. For instance: “When real life is wanting, one must create an illusion. It is better than nothing.”

You know, the theatre could be considered just one such illusion.

Huh.

The next play at which I sought respite from my pathetic existence, on the following afternoon, also trafficked in themes of illusion and the stories we tell ourselves to survive, albeit in quite a different style. I was lucky enough to snag myself a ticket to the last performance of MNM Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha!

The Tony-winning 60’s musical is not so much an adaption of 17 century masterpiece Don Quixote but an inventive play within a play inspired by aspects of the novel and aspects of the life of its author, Miguel Cervantes. I haven’t read or researched either, so I’m not one to offer any literary or historical comparisons, but judged on its own merits, the work was plenty entertaining and even more thought provoking.

It was also quite well-produced, starting with an appropriately dreary prison set and period costumes and a truly phenomenal cast. Leads Michael McKenzie as Cervantes/Quixote and Anna Lise Jensen as Aldonza probably gave the most complex and memorable performances, but other standouts included the angel-voiced Milton Mendez as Padre and expressive Gaby Tortoledo as Antonia. Rio Peterson also definitely deserves props for playing guitar as well as playing a prisoner for practically the entire show, or at least as long as his character was alive, as does fellow ensemble member Rebeca Diaz for ably picking up his character’s mantle!

The nested structure of the piece was disorienting at first but eventually fascinating, as was Quixote’s unusual philosophy, encapsulated in his iconic anthem “The Impossible Dream.” For him, an ordinary old man who insists that he is a knight and on following the rules of chivalry, even when that means calling a windmill a dragon or a shaving basin a golden helmet, meaning is found in striving to meet his lofty ideals rather than in accomplishing any particular goal. Yet Quixote’s bizarre idealistic striving and Cervantes’ telling of that striving are both shown to lead to concrete positive results. In the play within the play, these changes are largely confined to the self-image of one woman; in the fictionalized tale of Cervantes, one man’s story leads to enlightenment of an entire prison!

The show, like Shakespeare before it, reflects on the similarities between madmen and poets, as “both select from life” what pleases them. After all, you could say someone who’s spouting falsehoods is crazy, or you could say he’s putting on a show!

I think I too, in the end, would choose a delirious world in which nobility mattered and was consistently rewarded over the so often underwhelming real one, where Don Quixote’s beautiful damsel Dulcinea is only Aldonza the kitchen whore and dying men are wont to ask not “why they were dying, but why they had lived.” So far, I’ve always chosen illusion, whether that be in madness—or in art. Heck, my unwavering belief in the dying art of theatre might be just as crazy as Don Quixote’s belief in the dying art of chivalry!

I’ll certainly by keeping an eye out for MNM’s next production!

Published by ilanaintheatreland

One lifelong theatre lover's informed and quirky reflections on theatre across South Florida! Feel free to email me at irothman@gm.slc.edu with any

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