In the opening moments of Uncle Vanya, the disaffected Doctor Astrov wonders, as Chekhov characters often do, “What are people going to say a hundred years from now? We’re supposed to be paving the way for them. You think they’ll admire us for the way we live now?” Within the context of the work Chekhov subtitled “Scenes of Country Life”— scenes that lay bare “the way we live now”— the question sets in motion the subtle rhythms of time that undulate through the play, as the characters look expectantly to the future for some kind of salve (if not salvation) to alleviate their grief.
In the context of the Lincoln Center Festival, which is currently presenting an adaptation of Vanya by the Irish playwright Brian Friel, a version of Astrov’s question finds an uneasy answer in the festival’s other major theatrical offerings: two contemporary plays by Friel, and Robert Wilson’s first U.S. premiere since 1986, THE DAYS BEFORE death, destruction & Detroit III. Both talk back to the turn of the last century— if not directly to the way Vanya‘s characters lived, at least to the way Chekhov wrote them. Friel represents, both in his own work (two Festival productions have not yet been seen for review) and in his milky rendering of Vanya, a naturalism that has curdled over the last 100 years, while Wilson offers the antithesis, famously and frequently sneering that “naturalism is based on a lie.”
That was hardly news a century ago. And it may as well be said of any art form, or at least of any interesting art form. But it is true that the perfunctory naturalism that dominates mainstream theater today has lost its self-consciousness, winding up its plots ever more mechanically, and explaining (and expiating) its characters ever more tediously. Chekhov’s plays, on the other hand, are digressive, mysterious, and lyrically lacking in forward drive. Friel, unfortunately, seems to want to bring Chekhov up to date. He fills in the open questions that give Vanya its rhythm and depth; he turns its delicate humor into cheap gags.
At the end of the play, for instance, when Astrov is preparing to leave Vanya’s home, presumably forever, he notices a map on the wall and suddenly remarks, “It must be hot in Africa right now. Really hot.” Vanya mumbles a “probably” and that’s all. Chekhov makes a musical gesture here, guiding the tempo of Astrov’s uneasy departure even as he underscores Astrov’s surging irrelevance to the household. Friel, however, adds several excruciatingly explicatory lines, in which the characters wonder how a globe ever came into the room and then joke about what Telegin, a family friend who lives with them, might have to say about Africa, thus reiterating the punch lines that Telegin has repeated half a dozen times already. This joking further beefs up the substantial additions Friel has made to exaggerate Telegin into a pathetic buffoon.
Director Ben Barnes is Friel’s reliable henchman. Chekhov gives us a Sonya who says not a word about her love for Astrov once she learns that he does not love her in return, allowing her woe to sift silently into the atmosphere and linger like a cloud over the fourth act; Barnes sends her into the
upstage-center doorway as Astrov exists, and leaves her standing there, frozen, for a good long while, a spotlight on her intensifying as the surrounding lights fade to blue. Drowned out, perhaps, by such bald emotional effects, the actors drum up precious little feeling between them in this cold, cloying Vanya. Indeed, this is a naturalism that can match Robert Wilson for chill.
Unavoidably, Wilson’s work, too, is based on a lie: the supposition that people can experience sound, text, and human movement without teasing out — or at least projecting— some kind of discursive meaning. Indeed, this has been a most productive lie, pulsing like a muscle within Wilson’s most thrilling extravaganzas. Over the last several decades, they have done nothing less than teach us new ways to perceive theatrical space and time and our own inevitable role in shaping them.
In THE DAYS BEFORE, however, Wilson heaps on so much discursive material— primarily sections of Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before— that there’s hardly room to see what his cast of some 20 actors and dancers is doing. The constant buzz of narrative, albeit beautifully delivered by Fiona Shaw, frequently overwhelms Wilson’s stage paintings, and one can’t help reading the images as simpleminded, if abstract, illustrations of the text, a tangled epic romance set in the 17th century, about a man shipwrecked as he searches for the meridian that divides yesterday from today. Headless black figures wander about the stage as Shaw speaks of human carnage and annihilation. Actors in costumes that suggest a cross between samurai warriors and Star Trek villains walk geometric patterns across the floor and then combat each other in a sword fight of clanging pipes, while Shaw talks of barbarism and images of the czar’s family are projected onto fluttering pieces of scrim. The accelerating chug-chug of a train, pierced by an occasional whistle, crescendos through the sound system as three upstage screens show fuzzy black-and-white footage of people who look like refugees, carrying bundles and enduring occasional random shoves from a man in a uniform.
Wilson says in program notes that THE DAYS BEFORE was inspired by myths of Apocalypse: “Shifting between ancient and modern times, visions of the end of the world in the second millennium reflect those which appear in the first millennium.” When matched with Eco’s text, which waxes like a sophomore reading Descartes for the first time— “I would go on seeking the atom to infinity. The action would lead me to the moment where matter would be infinite divisibility . . . “— the production comes off as a pretty pageant of despair, in which Eco’s labored rhetoric is Eurythmically interpreted. Yes, it’s often that boring and that silly. What’s worse, evocations of the Hiroshima bombing and the Nazi Holocaust are reduced to aesthetic elements in the careful construction of lovely stage pictures.
Still, there are some arresting moments: It’s Wilson, after all. A.J. Weissbard’s lighting is never anything but gorgeous and Ryuichi Sakamato’s constant score— droning undertones, smashing glass, crashing surf, braying cows, flattened-out Barry Manilow, wailing cellos, thumping disco bass— lends the production its most coherent structure. A 90-year-old opera singer, Semiha Berksoy, got up in gold lamé, rhinestones, and feathers, reclines on a red divan that glides across the stage as she rasps out Isolde’s “Liebestod” with throaty confidence. I can’t help reading the campy moment as a comment on decadence in the face of disaster, but I rather suspect— and felt in one of only two emotional catches of the 100-minute performance— that the scene celebrates creativity as humanity’s only possible answer to its violence.
The other time my heart quickened came at the end, when a tiny, ancient, white-bearded man appeared. This frail Beckettian figure was so compelling, exuding such presence and energy as he wondered at the company assembled in tidy tableau, that he nearly upstaged all the commotion around him.
But these two scenes can hardly puncture the holiness that encases the solemn proceedings. I have heard a few colleagues describe THE DAYS BEFORE as an unintentional self-parody, trotting out, as it does, so many of the familiar Wilsonian devices— slo-mo movement, Kabuki-ish blocking, flying-in horizontal bar, abrupt stops to crescendoing sound and accelerating motion. It reminds me, however, of the sorts of plays mocked a hundred years ago by Chekhov, in the first act of The Seagull.