The birth of UM’s Media Arts program in 1996 initially didn’t attract much notice beyond the Drama/Dance Department, where it had been quietly gestating. But eight years later, Program Director Michael Murphy has introduced to Missoula a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that may change the face of theater here. Murphy has harnessed modern sensibilities and resources to create an exciting, challenging and shocking experience.
The shock comes from the production’s simplicity—how easy it is to transform the revered text into a vital experience, how few the tricks and techniques, how bold the effect. While never sacrificing Chekhov—if anything, the play is too good to be subdued and is ferociously reincarnated—Murphy has designed a masterpiece of expression, and his collaboration with his designers captivates the audience.
The design of the production is the first thing that matters. Reconfiguring UM’s Masquer Theatre, Murphy arranges us around a semi-thrust stage. Four large, solid monitors face the audience where footlights would have been. The monitors project images filmed by two black-clad camerapeople who move unobtrusively along the edges of the stage and behind it, seizing close-ups of the actors’ faces or hands. At first the device, designed by Murphy and Travis Stevens, threatens to bully our attention, pushing it where Murphy wants it to go, but very easily and quickly the device becomes part of the performance, along with the patched-cloth screens hanging over the stage, onto which are projected more images, sometimes stories that are happening off stage or in memory, sometimes enlargements of the actors’ faces we can see below. In particularly tense scenes, the competing cameras catch hidden angles, sometimes filming images that include the images they are filming (the endlessly repeating interior). Sometimes an actor comes to rest, seated upon the screen which shows her own face or the face of the person to whom she’s talking. Howard Kingston’s score darts here and there. With competing media, the production approximates the brain’s internal process, a guess at how we collect and rearrange our thoughts.
How does this serve Chekhov? His elaborately constructed family, with its dramas and disappointments, emerges in visual layers as well as in the layers of language and relationship. Each actor is possessed of layers we couldn’t see before, and the actors relate to the cameras with startling ease. Uncle Vanya is fine, unflappable amidst all this newness. The real question becomes: How does this serve theater? Murphy gives us the purest theatrical experience, the uneasy, inaccessible, uncommon experience of being at once inside our own heads and inside his. He explodes the notion of the way we watch, the way we approach a stage or a story.
Drama/Dance’s previous efforts with Chekhov have been suitable though stodgy, cast with actors who seemed uninterested in Chekhov, directed methodically. Now something strange and wondrous has come, a Vanya with such grace and energy that it challenges its audience in almost every moment, its actors wonderful, passing before us as if allowing us to glimpse just a moment of the lives they have lived forever. They seem so effortlessly at ease in Chekhov’s isolated country house, in tune with his social hierarchies and passionate secrets. They have stopped acting; they have become others.
As Astrov, Ture Carlson possesses a fed-up indignation, and his manner is unnervingly natural, as though Astrov actually lived here in Missoula and just wandered into the theater. Carlson emphasizes Astrov’s line, “I don’t have any feelings anymore,” which becomes the hallmark of his performance. Bryce Jensen, as Vanya, battles himself for control, at last exploding. Wavey Shaver, as the plain and disappointed Sonya, is poignant in her dogmatic acceptance of her dashed dreams. Krisanne Markel, as the beautiful and privileged Yelena, is coquettishly confused by the mayhem she causes, also exhibiting genuine confusion that breaks your heart. (I did not believe, however, in the moment where she throws caution to the wind so that she can let Astrov kiss her; I longed for Markel to give us a sense of what this might cost her.) Molly Madden, though evidently decades younger than her character, Nanny, emanates dignity and perpetual kindness with her rich laugh.
The intimacy between the actors is diluted, but then it is replaced by the intimacy between each actor and the audience as we face their enlarged images—their TV personalities. It’s the way a 2004 audience is used to seeing its culture, from video diaries to reality TV. The screens give us access to their candor in a way that we do not have when separated by physical distance, even in live performance. Ironically, the filmed images seem more authentic than their physical counterparts. This is a credit to the actors’ ability to play to the camera, as they often must, and also to ignore it, too, like documentary subjects who have become oblivious to a filmmaker’s intrusion. Uncle Vanya may be the most inspirational piece of theater to grace a Missoula stage in a long time, and, I hope, one of the most influential as well.