Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” does not seem like a natural partner for the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat. But 24/6: A Jewish Theater Company paired the two, presenting an insightful, if rather nihilistic celebration of the holiday.
The evening was entitled, “TuBishVanya,” a portmanteau of the holiday being celebrated and the play being performed. Tables were set up within reach of the audiences with the basic accoutrements of a Tu b’Shvat seder, namely grape juice in four different colors and different types of fruits and nuts. Before and between acts, the cast presented kabbalistic explanations of the seder, and the audience sampled the refreshments before them.
Avi Soroka both starred as the put-upon Vanya, and translated and adapted the text. He is co-artistic director of 24/6 with Yoni Oppenheim, who conceived and directed the production.
The performances ranged in quality, but there were a couple of standout actors, most notably a riveting Ari Benjamin Hirsch as Dr. Astrov. Given the evening’s ecological themes, the character that is the staunch conservationist should be the play’s moral core. However, each character in the play is selfish, and stuck in his or her own reality, and the doctor is no exception. Hirsch simultaneously conveys true passion about nature preservation and callousness to the feelings of those around him, presenting Astrov as blind to his own hypocrisy. As with the other characters, the delicately organized set (mostly chairs and a set table with the fixings the audience receives) is merely a canvas for his own drama.
Characters consume constantly, strewing almonds and dates around the table and floor (even throwing food), and on one occasion Vanya tears apart a book, scattering its pages. Munching on raisins feels considerably more awkward when you see them wasted in front of you, and herein lies the production’s greatest strength and weakness. The breaks in the play for the seder felt somewhat incongruous – the actors were inconsistently in and out of character – but more than that, the seder felt almost a mockery in the face of the text of the play.
The characters in “Uncle Vanya” show cruelty to the environment, yes, but this pales in comparison to their treatment of one another. If Astrov can plant trees but sexually assault the woman he claims to love, then why preserve the environment? Tu b’Shvat heralds humankind as steward of the trees, but if people show cruelty to one another, what is the purpose of having a beautiful natural world in which to live?
At both the beginning and end of the play, in true Chekhovian fashion, each character is desperately unhappy, but the 24/6 company bookended this production with the cast dancing and chanting a niggun. This gesture was almost eerie, a festive, overtly Jewish form of celebration in bleak circumstances. Although the production was effective, it was at the cost of the traditional pleasantness of Tu b’Shvat.
Regardless of the production’s intent, TuBishVanya’s ecological message was ultimately, well, fruitless. But a warning against human cruelty is relevant all year round.