“Vanya (or, That’s Life!)” Unspools Despair @ Rasaka Theatre Company (hosted by the Edge Theater)

“Vanya (or, That’s Life!)” Unspools Despair @ Rasaka Theatre Company (hosted by the Edge Theater)

Theatre review by Kerstin Broockmann, January 7, 2017

3 stars out of 4

In Vanya, or That’s Life!, Rasaka Theatre Company and adaptor Lavina Jadhwani have taken Anton Chekhov’s 19th Century reflection on love, life and betrayal and injected a bit of Pinter-esque deconstruction (the events unfold in reverse) and a bit of the direct-address and songs of musical theater (not for nothing that exclamation point in the title). It is a trim, 90-minute adaptation that hits all of the main plot points of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and allows the characters moments to reflect on their lives’ journeys and how they were shaped by love and ego. While the cast embrace the unspooling of time and easily shift between the traditional scenes with each other and connecting to the audience, some of the emotional resonance of the original gets lost in the meta-theatrical translation.

The reverse chronology has one major advantage—as the characters go back in time, from the bleak winter of the present to the hopeful spring of the past, they know where their journeys and choices will take them. They also are aware of the hard-earned lessons they will take away. In Jadhwani’s adaptation, this knowledge informs the character’s interactions with each other in a way that encourages the audience to reflect on their own relationships and motivations. In the world of Vanya (or, That’s Life!), this self-consciousness will allow each character to move beyond the events of the play fortified with more hope, strength and compassion; Chekhov did not necessarily give the audience this palliative. Jadhwani also allows each character to reflect on his or her journey aloud to the audience; this may sound like a tedious device, but these monologues are beautifully written and restore some of the character development that is lost in abridging the plot. The actors fully embrace the opportunity to share these stories and they become the heart of the play. Some of the other devices that separate Jadhwani’s adaptation from its source are not as successful. Indie rock songs inserted into the narrative often seem extraneous (and take the audience out of the journey), with the notable exception of a Jenny Owen Youngs cover that seamlessly merges with the emotional content of several scenes and is given a full-throated, committed rendition by the cast. Likewise, some of the comedic asides serve no purpose except to provide snarky distraction. Finally, some of the characters suffer more than others from the truncated plot, becoming less sympathetic because we do not get to know them as well.

The talented cast handles the shifts in tone, time and focus with aplomb. Veterans Rom Barkhordar (as Vanya) and Allison Cain (as Marina) give warm, gracious and moving performances with a light touch that makes their stories compelling, full of humor and deep feeling. Tiffany Renee Johnson as Yelena blends compassion for Sonia’s plight, hauteur and a clear-eyed recognition of the compromises she has struck. As her husband, Bill Chamberlain captures the desperation of the man of letters who is beginning to realize that his career and marriage have yielded no legacy and are becoming the source of derision; his bluster often becomes overbearing, but the vulnerability shines through when it must. As the frustrated Astrov, Richard Costes falls victim to the worst of the script cuts—it is only later in the adaptation that the doctor’s genuine humanity and altruism emerge from the fog of alcohol—but he usually avoids the pitfalls of the text to reveal the growing despair that underpins his bumbling cruelty. Raj Bond as Waffles, or rath, Ilya Ilych, carries his character’s lovesickness through his somewhat underwritten role as the de facto minstrel [lending his skills as a guitarist and vocalist as well] that he becomes a powerful presence in his own right as he fleshes out his own history. Though definitely an ensemble effort, it is Puja Mohindra as Sonia who provides the emotional cohesion. Mohindra is awkward and articulate, plain and luminescent at once; in this version of Chekhov’s classic it becomes clear that she is more constrained by her circumstances than any of the many people who lament their fates (and whose narcissistic pity convinces her that she deserves her loneliness).

Director Kaiser Ahmed allows the actors to spin the narrative and emotional web of the play, which usually pays off in their easy interactions with each other and the audience. There are moments where the pace flags and the humor becomes too heavy-handed, but the empathy of the company for the lives of these iconic Russians overcomes these. One thing they cannot overcome is the clumsy scene changes, despite the musical underscoring and business that seeks to make more of the movement of furniture. When the furniture is stationary, the picture-frame set by Andrew Johnson serves as an evocative Cornell box, displaying the props (by Corinne Bass) that are the artifacts of the inhabitants’ lives. The set also makes a striking transformation in the final (first) act, with an assist from Cat Wilson’s lighting design, which traces the emotional and seasonal journey from bleak winter to bright but evanescent spring. Ana Culajay’s costumes are modern, but hint at 19th Century Russian manor life as well as the universality of the story, also reflected in the diverse backgrounds of the cast. Sound designer Matt Reich creates a rich tapestry of modern indie pop and moody instrumentals that generally provides support for the teeming passions onstage.

Though not entirely successful, with some clumsy anachronisms and rushed plot and character arcs which compromise the emotional richness of the source material, Jadhwani’s adaptation is a swift, accessible treatment that is an excellent introduction to the relevance of Vanya today. The unraveling plot shines a light on the hope and resilience inherent in the human condition which is not so readily apparent in the original, with its ruminations on the afterlife. Appropriate in a response to a play written by a physician, a biological metaphor underpins the reflection on love and ego--despite their fragility, bones (ego) are easier to repair and maintain than the tissue of which the organ most associated with love consists; muscles (and love) require exertion, rest, and constant maintenance. Vanya (or, That’s LIfe!), as performed by the talented and exuberant cast under Kaiser Ahmed’s affectionate direction, is a joyful, inspiring adaptation with plenty of the original for purists and enough respectful irreverence to appeal to the Chekhov-shy. Told with warmth and compassion, there is plenty of food for thought and some beautiful reflections on human potential.

Vanya, or That’s Life!, presented by Rasaka Theatre Company at the Edge Theater, 5451 North Broadway, runs through February 3, 2017. Performance are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, with matinee performances at 4:00 pm on Saturdays and 3:30 pm on Sundays. Tickets are $30, with senior, student, industry and group discounts available. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.rasakatheatre.com. For more information, also visit www.theatreinchicago.com.

Photo by: Scott Dray

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.