State Theatre of Lithuania

at the Royal-George Theatre

A drama teacher of mine used to tell her students never to mess around with a serious line. She said she’d got herself into trouble that way once, while rehearsing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Seems she tied a hunk of pipe to the rose she was holding, so that when it came time to toss it to Romeo, it hit the stage with a thud. She told us she was never again able to play that scene without laughing out loud.

My old drama teacher would hate the State Theatre of Lithuania’s Uncle Vanya. It’s got lead roses everywhere. Director Eimuntas Nekrosius has taken Chekhov’s tale of wasted lives, frustrated passions, and unrealized dreams and made it go thud-thud-thud like crazy.

A retired pedant limps around with a school bell, ringing it every time he’s got something to say, His beautiful but unhappy young wife finds it impossible to engage in conversation without going through the most ridiculous nervous contortions. Of the several men who love her, one keeps trying to steal and sniff her perfume vials while another lectures her on the local ecology using complicated maps the size of postage stamps. Servants perform a soft-shoe, sliding back and forth in slick-bottomed boots; when nobody’s looking, they beat the shit out of a harmless upperclass idiot. Thud-thud-thud. Every comic moment is pushed to the level of burlesque, and every seemingly serious moment is subverted into satire. No matter what grand emotional catastrophe’s taking place in the foreground, there’s always somebody half-hidden upstage lobbing roses with a look, making us laugh.

And the funny thing is, it all ends up seeming so terribly sad. Nekrosius’s jolly conceits heighten our sense of Vanya’s tragedy precisely by heightening our sense of its ludicrousness. These folks are so incredibly, so humanly ridiculous that we can’t help but cry for them–and so deeply miserable, we can’t help but laugh.

Nekrosius’s strategy, basically is to take the subtexts for which Chekhov’s so famous, and–rather than letting them seethe beneath the surface, in the conventional Method manner–throw them in our faces. The pendant’s bell is a measure of his mean-spirited egotism; the wife’s contortions, a suggestion of her desperate centerlessness. When she falls into Vanya’s arms, or into those of the local doctor, Astrov, the gesture needn’t be taken literally: It’s a playing out of the underlying energy; the subtext; the thing Vanya, Astrov, and she would be doing if they dared. Likewise, when vials of her perfume show up in the pockets of all the men who covet her, what we’re seeing isn’t an actual theft so much as a charming, silly, symbolic tribute. What we’re seeing is the contents of the heart displayed.

Nekrosius has a genius for creating images that convey–deftly, humorously–the essence of Chekhov’s characters and interactions. He’s also got the great good fortune of having access to a marvelous ensemble of artists. Looking like Bruno Ganz and expressing the dry wit of a Marcello Mastroianni, Kostas Smoriginas makes a uniquely European hero of Astrov. The sight of him carrying his own coat at the end of a long tweezers like some surgically excised organ–the sight of him throwing an animal skin over his back and crawling to Vanya’s niece, who tickles him like a dog, behind the ear–is an apotheosis of existential pain, self-disgust, and oblivion.

Vidas Petkevicius is an angry, surprisingly attractive Vanya; Dalia Storyk, a fascinating mess of mannerisms as the much-loved young wife, Yelena. Juozas Pocius manifests a lovely, pathetic clownishness as the idiot, Telyegin. And Vladas Bagdonas hangs like a coat on a stick–albeit a remarkably ornery coat–as the old professor, Sereryakov.

Everyone, actually, is no less than amazing. The first two syllables of Nekrosius’s name are the same as the Greek root for “dead,” but he’s managed to reanimate Chekhov’s play in a way I never would have imagined possible.

The process of reanimation continues in the State Theatre’s production of V. Korastylev’s Pirosmani, Pirosmani. Named for a great but unappreciated Lithuanian folk artist, Nico Pirosmanashvil, Pirosmani is a symbolic chronicle of the painter’s last hours. His passion, essentially. Characters from his life and images from his paintings parade by as he sinks into an alcoholic’s death.

Extraordinary theatrical images parade by, as well. Directed by Nekrosius, Pirosmani swims in superb and remarkable visions. Of Pirosmani limping along, supported by a canvas, his lungs moaning out loud. Of Pirosmani’s drinking buddy Grigol measuring a table, a newspaper clipping, and Pirosmani himself. Of the 12 chairs that Pirosmani sets out for guests who never come. And of the woman, Margarite, who pulls those chairs out from under him one at a time.

At one point Pirosmani, says, “God always gives more to those who have suffered in life. This much. This much”–and he holds the thumb and forefinger of his left hand maybe two inches apart. The gesture shows up again and again: now as a presence, now as an absence. Simple, exquisite.

Vladas Bagdonas, the coat-on-a-stick from Vanya, plays Pirosmani with a strangely appropriate combination of absolute desperation and absolute command. I’d love to see him do something by Beckett.

And I’d love to see Nekrosius direct Marlowe’s Faust. What might he do with the Seven Deadly Sins? Unfortunately, I’ll have to go to Lithuania to see it–as you’ll have to go to Lithuania to see either Vanya or Pirosmani. The International Theatre Festival’s over and they’re gone. I’m just grateful for the images, the stage cluttered with lead roses, that they were kind enough to leave behind.

While finishing this review I was distracted for a moment by television coverage of the president of the United States embarrassing himself and his nation by speaking patronizingly, ignorantly, idiotically about American Indians to an audience of Soviet students. They give us the State Theatre of Lithuania and we hand them Reagan. My God, they ought to sue.