A description from a Chinese poem helped inspire Charles S.C. Jin’s production of a classic Russian play.
The story of a man drinking with the company of the moon and his shadow, evoking loneliness through just three images, influenced how his play could convey universal emotions through simple forms.
Jin, a graduate directing student, will stage his production of Anton Chekhov’s, “Uncle Vanya,” from Friday through Tuesday at UCLA’s Little Theater. The show tells the story of visitors returning to a country estate run by the titular character Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya. Jin said the 19th-century tragicomedy features characters who face various struggles including betrayal and unrequited love, ultimately culminating in a tale of lost expectations. Following Chekhovian tradition, Jin said he focused on expressing the emotional heart of the play through minimal but symbolic scenery. However, he deviated from conventional renditions by using very expressive acting gestures to convey the feelings of the characters.
“Why (“Uncle Vanya”) touched me is not the form but the content itself,” Jin said. “We use a lot of poetic gesture to externalize the internal emotion, and I think these emotions are the most important part for the play.”
James Maloof, an MFA set and production design student and “Uncle Vanya’s” scenic designer, said Jin’s vision revolved around creating a stark and simplified stage as the backdrop for Chekhov’s characters. Jin introduced Maloof to the Chinese poem as a guide for creating emotional clarity, inspiring the set design to convey moods and information through essential pieces instead of recreating a hyperrealistic Russian country estate, he said.
Maloof said the play’s opening set includes a pile of hay, an outdoor swing and a metal urn called a samovar. The minimal set pieces suggest fieldwork and the Russian countryside implicitly to the audience. Maloof said the swing serves as a dynamic prop on stage, while also symbolizing Uncle Vanya’s misplaced love for the character Yelena when a lone flower is lain on the swing for her. Stripping away elaborate elements helps the audience focus on the symbolic meaning of objects and the stories of the characters, Maloof said.
“In theater, it is a bit of a laboratory and we’re focusing down in a microscopic way at a particular moment,” Maloof said. “One thing about Chekhov is that he’s trying to evoke the true nature of humans, not through a big literal way of saying it but through the things we don’t say.”
Chekhovian traditions of restraint would likely favor simple staging and performance over unnecessary design elements and melodramatic acting, said Yelena Furman, a lecturer in UCLA’s department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian languages and cultures. Chekhov revolutionized a new way of writing for the stage, prioritizing realistic dialogue rather than the overly emotive acting and extravagant design elements common to his era, she said.
“I think that’s one of the major difficulties of staging Chekhov, as it is less overt and much more subtle. It is all about your internal life. How do you stage the internal life of a human being?” Furman said.
Davia Schendel, a fourth-year theater student who will play Sonya, said the abstract scenery helped her feel more vulnerable in expressing Sonya’s feelings, which are hidden underneath a polite and sweet facade. Because Chekhov wrote “Uncle Vanya” in 19th -entury Russia, his plays represent a culture which emphasized decorum and avoided overt displays of emotion, Schendel said.
The costumes, which are accurate representations of older Russian attire, represent the cultural limitations placed on characters, Schendel said. Sonya wears dresses which cover most of her skin, restraining her. Draped in earth tones to represent Sonya’s agrarian life, Schendel said her restrictive petticoats and high-necked blouses visually express Sonya’s withholding of feelings for her love interest, Dr. Astrov.
Embracing the fashion from Chekhov’s time provided physical limitations on actors as well, Schendel said. The tightness of the corset changed her breathing patterns as well as her posture, influencing her performance. Jin, however, encouraged the performers not to be afraid of expressive gestures and stylized body language to communicate feelings, even though the technique may not necessarily be consistent with Chekhovian tradition. A scene in which Sonya reveals her feelings to the audience uses a meaningful gesture – she longingly caresses a symbolic white curtain to show her desire for Dr. Astrov, Schendel said.
“Sonya is left alone on stage, talking to herself about how Astrov makes her feel,” Schendel said. “She takes the curtain and almost treats it like it’s him, like it’s his shadow.”
While the performances are poetic and the sets abstract, Jin said the human emotion of the play is very grounded. His production’s use of impressionism, symbolism and minimalism in different theatrical aspects helped him hone in on the emotional reality of the play.
“(“Uncle Vanya”) is a human topic. I believe everyone asks themselves the same questions from time to time,” Jin said. “‘What is the essence of life that I can live with?’”