Uncle Vanya+Animal Farm=1 Great Night

Vanya

Matthew Lumley is Uncle Vanya and Andrea Lee Norwood is his niece Sonia in North Mountain Vanya, a Two Planks and a Passion Theatre outdoor production at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts near Canning to Aug. 18. (Malachy Schwartz)

Chekhov’s 1899 Uncle Vanya fits amazingly well into a Nova Scotia wood in 2018.
Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s stimulating, enigmatic and intense production at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts is heavily Russian in mood, character and dazzling period costumes for the women designed by Jennifer Goodman.

The samovar is ever-present along with decanters of brandy and vodka for these miserable people.

Uncle Vanya has a nihilism – much like today. Dr. Astrov decries the deforestation and loss of species in Russia – much like today. It’s wonderful to be sitting on bleachers looking into sunlit woods as he states his case.

North Mountain Vanya, an adaptation by director Ken Schwartz, starts at 6 p.m. on the North Mountain near Canning. At 9:30 p.m., people gather around a fire for a brilliant musical version of Animal Farm.  For its first time the company has a third summer production, also about the land, Elapultiek By Fire, commissioned from shalan joudry, of Bear River First Nation, opening Aug. 25, 8 p.m.

Vanya3
Genevieve Steele is Helena, the pretty, young wife, of an aging, cranky professor (Ryan Rogerson) in North Mountain Vanya. (Malachy Schwartz)

Uncle Vanya is a mix of Samuel Beckett and Jerry Seinfeld – bleak and funny, essentially about nothing or everything.

The characters don’t hear the croak of ravens because they are consumed with self-analysis and the meaninglessness of their lives.

In Uncle Vanya the visit of an aging professor and his stunning, younger wife to their country estate is a torque for the frustrated lives of those trapped on the estate.

Uncle Vanya (Matthew Lumley), brother to the professor’s deceased, first wife, runs the meagre operation with his niece, the plain-looking, productive Sonia (Andrea Lee Norwood).

Dominating the landscape is the aged, wise nurse, Marina, in a wonderfully crafted performance by Burgandy Code.

Rushing in like a mighty wind is Jeff Schwager bringing all of his nuanced, tragi-comic forces and vitality to Dr. Astrov, a hard-working, under-rated country doctor and environmentalist who is also selfish.

Vanya is a frustrated, whining character but also a tragic one as he glimpses new life in his impossible love for the professor’s wife, Helena, as does poor Dr. Astrov.

Genevieve Steele plays this character – an idle, rich and selfish woman but also dramatic and earnest  – with potency and flair. Helena is like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, appealing but destructive.

Also in the cast are Ryan Rogerson’s comical, cranky, domineering professor, musical director Tim Machin’s guitar-playing, plodding, peacemaking peasant Tim and Chris O’Neill’s rigid grandmother.

Ken Schwartz directs this classic with lots of movement on his grassy stage but also with a slow, filmic quality as drama is captured in pointed facial expressions.

Sonia’s final speech about enduring life in favour of heavenly salvation – perfectly delivered by Andrea Lee Norwood – may be the honest truth or the deepest irony.

ANIMAL FARM BY FIRE

This year’s fun, fireside production with the audience seated on benches around a constantly-stoked bonfire is the one hour, 20-minute Animal Farm – the musical version – adapted from George Orwell’s book by director Ken Schwartz, who wrote the lyrics with composer and musical director Allen Cole.

This show is brilliant – so clear, swiftly paced and playful even as it is serious. In his story of animals taking over their farm with a descent into a brutal dictatorship by the pigs, Orwell was referencing Communism. Today, one’s mind quickly links to other  examples of power and greed trumping humanity.

Highlights in the cast include Matthew Lumley’s dignified horse, Andrea Lee Norwood’s wily, rapper-pig, Jeff Schwager’s increasingly menacing, dictator pig and Chris O’Neill’s confused, kindly mare.

Animal Farm by Fire is entirely an ensemble piece with seamless team work; music played in the dark by Rogerson and Tim Machin, and wonderful, clever, plot-moving songs including a twist on Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The  animal incarnations, done purely with movement and sound, are great – credible and incredible.

Giant cookies are for sale at intermission, and marshmallows to roast at the end of Animal Farm, also on to Aug. 18. The complete schedule is online (http://www.artscentre.ca/).

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