Reaching out of the norm
Have you ever been told a story backwards? It seems like it would be a very strange concept, maybe even too strange for a play to attempt. But VANYA does this in their adapted work from Chekhov’s classic play, Uncle Vanya.
It makes sense that the author, Lavina Jadhwani, has chosen a Chekhov play with which to try this time-telling experiment. Many audience members would be familiar with Chekhov’s work or at least know most of his plays have to do with familial drama. In this case, the professor, Alexander is visiting his estate in the country with his second wife, Elena. The estate is run by Alexander’s daughter and brother-in-law, Sonya and Vanya. From there come the usual conflicts like a love-triangle, where Vanya and the doctor, Astrov, fall in love with Elena while Sonya falls in love with Astrov. Not to mention that Alexander wants to sell the estate for his own personal gain.
VANYA begins in the winter and each scene plays the year backward since the arrival of the professor to the estate. You find out the ending before you’re twenty minutes into the play. It might be jarring for some, but to others it might add another level of thought. Instead of watching the play to build the information you know, you have to keep in mind what you already experienced in order to make sense of what happens in the next scenes.
This method also works on a deeper level because by the end of the play, or the beginning of the year in the spring when the professor first arrives, the characters know as much as the audience does about the ending. They use this to their advantage and invoke a meta-relationship with each other. They know what’s going to happen, so they ask do they have to play out this part? Do they have to continue even though they know nothing good can come from it?
And so the end of the VANYA becomes something of a beginning. Perhaps because these situations that happen in Chekhov’s plays are so familiar or so predictable, these characters can accept these changes. Ultimately the characters couldn’t do anything about what was happening because the ending had already happened. At the end they must choose how they handle their emotions and move forward with their lives as the play ends.
Other artistic choices
In addition to the reversing of the timeline, the play also uses other thought-provoking choices in the design of the show: The barebones scenic design becomes more scarce by the end of the play. The folk/pop song choices including Taylor Swift and Beyonce. They break the fourth wall to ask the audience’s opinions of what’s happening onstage. All of these choices seem to bounce off one another in an eclectic way.
The set being pulled away at the end releases the characters to make their own choices. The songs help contemporize Chekhov’s work. And, breaking the fourth wall helps call the audience’s attention to when the characters are questioning what’s on stage. VANYA allows us to see that while there are some things you cannot change, you can also choose how you will take on these challenges. After all, that’s life!
Now through February 3, 2017
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Saturday matinees at 4 p.m.
Sunday matinees at 3:30 p.m.
The Edge Theater
5451 N. Broadway
Chicago IL 60640
Regular performances: $30
Groups of 8 or more: $25 each
Senior rate (with ID): $25
Students and Industry: $20 (with ID)
Photos: Scott Dray for Rasaka Theatre
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago