Uncle Vanya Plays at Duke

Saturday, July 5, 2014
Uncle Vanya Plays at Duke

Director Jeff Storer brought Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to the fall theater studies mainstage.

Storer (professor of the practice of theater studies) calls Chekhov “the master of combining laughter and tears,” so he prepared his student cast by having them explore both Chekhov’s vaudevilles and his longer major works to help them understand the fine balance of humor and suffering in his work.

To help the cast mine the humor in the play, Storer brought in Providence, RI-based movement and clown technique consultant and physical theater performer Kali Quinn (see more about Quinn here). “Because our production is not set in a particular period and the students won’t be using wigs and makeup, their characters needed to be expressed through their movement," said Storer.

Local musician, composer and Duke alum Bart Matthews wrote the score for the play, and performed his score live during the show, calling upon Uncle Vanya actors to help create the music, using voice, piano, trumpet, and violin.

Dramaturg Jules Odendahl-James noted that though the characters are in their 40s or even older, the questions raised are still relevant to the 20-something year old student actors.

“Have I missed the boat? Did I make the right choice? Have I fallen in love with the right person? If I haven’t fallen in love yet, will I do that?” were a few examples given by Odendahl-James to illustrate the timelessness of Chekhov.

Storer chose to double cast some of his characters. While the students may have been skeptical about sharing their roles at the beginning, they had a change of heart as the rehearsal process unfolded.

Storer noted that having multiple actors play one character during a single performance allowed for a broader interpretation of the characters, separating them from the actors. This cast was particularly diverse, which brought many different regionalisms to the play. For example, one of the actresses who played Yelena was from Arkansas while the other was from Zimbabwe.

In an interview for the Duke Chronicle, senior Nick Prey, who played one of the Astrovs, said the experience of splitting a character with junior Mike Myers was new and interesting.

“My natural impulse would be very different from Mike’s and the way we interpreted and played the character. I started taking things from him and he started taking things from me and it was a combined process,” Prey said. “I honestly don’t know anymore how I would have played the character if I were doing it on my own.”

Sophomore Faye Goodwin, who played one of the Sonyas, said that she was initially concerned there might be a certain competitiveness between actors sharing roles, but found the collaborative process to be meaningful.

“It almost took out that immature student actor element in thinking that the character is about you,” Goodwin said. “It’s not about you. It’s about the character.”

Storer used a new adaptation by Annie Baker for the production. Set design was by Raleigh artist Sonya Drum, and costume design was by Chatham County artist Derrick Ivey. Chuck Catotti from Duke University provided lighting design.

blog here documents the unfolding of the play. Click here to view photos and videos from the production.