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Play Review: Two Planks and a Passion displays deft ensemble performances in North Mountain Vanya

Genevieve Steele, left, as Helena, Andrea Lee Norwood as Sonia and Matthew Lumley converse at the outset of North Mountain Vanya. - CLAIRE MILTON
Genevieve Steele, left, as Helena, Andrea Lee Norwood as Sonia and Matthew Lumley converse at the outset of North Mountain Vanya. - CLAIRE MILTON - Contributed

The grounds of the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts look like they could be a run-down estate in the woods of Russia at the end of the 19th century. I’s an ideal setting for a Chekhov retake called North Mountain Vanya.

In the beginning, as Marina, the old nurse, wants to pour a cup of tea for Astrov, the bored country doctor, he replies, "I don't feel like it.”

The wise Marina and Astrov know each other well. She waits a moment and asks, "How about a little vodka?" She knows the show - and life - must go on.

It is not a big step to imagine the quiet boredom of lives on the Serebrakov family estate disrupted by the arrival of an egotistical professor (Ryan Rogerson) and his attractive second wife, Helena.

Charmingly portrayed by Genevieve Steele, Helena already has a couple of lone males on the hook: Ivan (or Uncle Vanya), played by Matthew Lumley, and Astrov, performed by Jeff Schwager.

Sonia attempts to cheer her uncle, Ivan, about events on the family estate in the Russian countryside. - CLAIRE MILTON
Sonia attempts to cheer her uncle, Ivan, about events on the family estate in the Russian countryside. - CLAIRE MILTON

 

Lumley delivers a committed performance as a man crumbling under the desperate pressures in front of him. Out of control and erratic, he prophesizes his demise and flails around, desiring a woman he can't have.

Vanya's violent outburst, prompted by Serebrakov’s selfish suggestion that his family sell the estate he’s laboured on for 25 years, galvanizes the cast, injecting much-needed vitality into the suffocating environment.

Serebrakov’s diligent daughter, Sonia, played by Andrea Lee Norwood, suffers from unrequited love and Astrov hardly pays her attention. However, Schwager makes the physician a multifaceted and entertaining fellow. His talk of protecting the environment and collective responsibility seems present day.

“God alone knows what our real business in life is,” Astrov says fittingly. This line almost perfectly encapsulates the angst and staleness that most of the characters feel.

This production, it is if fair to say, highlights the dilemmas of women more than some Chekhov. We weep with young Sonia as she sets out the Christian view of heaven as her reward, while her abiding faith does prompt a smile. Helena’s departure with the grumpy husband she doesn’t love is moving too.

All these tangled complications are brought on by family. The themes of North Mountain Vanya - the family squabbles, the impossibility of love, living with disappointment - are timeless.

In his adaptation, director Ken Schwartz has sped up the slow pacing of the show to some extent. At times, the tension could have been cut with a knife, while often the natural setting belies the drama.

His polished ensemble actors throw themselves into this series of conundrums with sophisticated textual and human exploration. Even a man with a small part, Tim Machin, plays the impoverished and abandoned Telegin with pathetic poise.

The woods are graced by Jennifer Goodman’s excellent period costumes. This Uncle Vanya is resonant, clear and consistently poignant.

North Mountain Vanya starts at 6 p.m. on the mountain near Canning.

Animal Farm

At 9:30 p.m., another audience gathers around a fire for a terrific musical version of Animal Farm.

Tyrannical Farmer Jones must be overthrown! How long will the new animal utopia last when a powerful leader emerges? It’s all too much like today’s politics.

This innovative new adaptation of George Orwell’s classic satire bites just as much today as when it was first written - and this one boasts inventive music.

Orwell’s concern was no idle matter. In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, he watched the idealistic socialist society get commandeered by the dictator Joseph Stalin. So he wrote a simple allegorical tale, Animal Farm, describing the telltale signs of totalitarianism to make them easily recognizable for all to see.

Animal Farm by Fire shows the animals quickly agreeing on a set of core principles, like equality. They adopt a set of commandments, such as not interacting with humans, not wearing clothes, not drinking alcohol and not killing any animal.

Then, Napoleon (Schwager) the pig takes firm control with the help of his spokesperson, Squealer (Norwood) and a litter of vicious puppies, and things get nasty. The deft acting of performers like Lumley, who plays Boxer the horse, Machin as the donkey, and Chris O’Neil as the mare, rounds out some powerful casting.

Schwartz wrote the lyrics with composer and musical director Allen Cole deserve kudos for this 80-minute theatrical tour-de-force. Be sure to catch it.

And for the first time, the company has a third summer production coming up in August. Elapultiek By Fire, commissioned from Shalan Joudry, of Bear River First Nation, opening Aug. 25, 8 p.m.

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