Whenever I’m developing a new play and the playwright (or director or cast) gets stuck on figuring out a particular moment, I tell them this: a play is called a play for a reason. You’re supposed to have fun with it, fool around, try new things, and basically act like a child at recess for the entertainment of others. I (and many other people) go to the theater to see what new worlds or experiences will spring from creative imaginations. Live Art DC’s Drunkle Vanya, now playing at The Pinch bar in Columbia Heights, comes from exactly that place. They aren’t purveying A Play, an artwork full of self-seriousness, but they bring you play, a fun experience to be caught up in.
The first indicator that Drunkle Vanya is an out-of-the-box experience is immediate: they’ve taken the play out of the black box theater and into the basement of a bar. The setting is so different from the normal theater experience, you might need some questions answered. No, there’s no set or lights or special costumes to speak of. Yes, drinks and food are served all throughout the experience. Yes, there is no assigned seating (or standing). The cast and audience weave their way through cocktail tables and a Big Buck Hunter arcade machine as they reenact a loose interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. And yes, you will interact with the actors. That said, most of the action happens close enough together that you can pick a spot and not miss too much.
Another hint that this isn’t going to be your typical theater experience is the name tags, given to all of the audience members preloaded with Cards Against Humanity. If you’re not familiar with the game, they’ll provide a brief explanation, but here’s another in case you want it. Cards Against Humanity is a word association game where a fill-in-the-blank problem card (i.e. “The reason I can’t sleep at night is [blank]) is solved with terribly offensive answer cards (i.e. “72 virgins” or “2 midgets shitting into a bucket”). Like I said, terribly offensive. As an audience member, your name will be one of the answer cards. When the characters are rueing life in their supremely Russian way, they’ll suddenly insert a “blank” into their speech, and guess who gets to be chosen by the cast to go up in front of everyone to have their name tag read? And, no, you don’t get to choose which one. Don’t be too concerned though, if your name tag gets chosen, you get a shot of vodka on the house.
Which begs the question: why? What does “a party game for horrible people” have to do with Chekhov’s tale of Russians lounging about in a country house, (a bar, in this production) loving unrequitedly until one of them explodes at the frustration of life? There’s two answers. One is that this purposeless card game of skeeved-out one-upsmanship is just the way that Chekhov’s self-absorbed characters might pass their afternoons, that their problems are so generic and unimportant that it is more interesting to fill in the blanks of their lives with offensive detail. The card game, like life, has no clear winners, and the best one can do is play along. The other answer is that Cards Against Humanity actually has very little to do with Uncle Vanya but is supremely fun to play in a group setting. So the mashup is a bit of a stretch, but that stretch is rewarded with an unrelentingly raucous experience.
That’s the theme of Drunkle Vanya: sometimes questionable stretches of the source material that are always in service of finding new ways to entertain the audience, though not always successfully. All of the pieces of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya are there, though they may not be familiar to most audiences (unless you’ve gone to one of the multitudinous Vanya adaptations in DC this season).
There’s Vanya, with cross-gender cast Karina Hilleard playing the character with equal parts rage and snark, who is supposed to take care of the bar with Jenna Berk’s Sonia, who actually does all of the work while pining after local doctor Astrov. Kevin Hasser’s smug portrayal of Astrov endears while he, in turn, pines after Yelena, Sonia’s step-mother, who gets a fine treatment of exasperation from actress Rebecca Ellis. Yelena wants her marriage to Sonia’s father, the Professor (with bombastic fervor from Rasik Ohal), while he just wants to get through his end-of-life crisis of confidence. Poor Waffles, played with a strong, calm and occasional salaciousness by local favorite Jon Jon Johnson, is the poor mediator of this madness, trying to instill his own sense of confidence in the other totally neurotic characters.
If this sounds like a lot to be packed into a two-ish hour play that spends much of its time playing Cards Against Humanity and doing shots, it is. Of all of the Vanya’s haunting DC’s theater landscape, this one ironically requires the most preparation in terms of knowing the original source material. If you aren’t familiar with Uncle Vanya, read the play (or the Wikipedia article, no shame in that) beforehand because some of the story gets lost in the shuffle.
That’s also probably the reason why there’s so much repetition in this play. Most of the characters have a repetitive cycle: they drink, then they desire something, that desire goes unfulfilled, and then they grouse about not getting what they desire, which makes them desire it (and drink) more. In that way, Drunkle Vanya is very much like a conversation in a bar, just with stock characters and the semi-forcible involvement of everyone in the establishment. For those paying attention to the details of the script, though, that repetition can create a bit of a grind. Unlike a conversation in a bar, however, this grind causes one of the characters to spectacularly snap, with a real-feeling risk of potential tragedy visible through the intoxicating haze of the experience.
Embracing that haze is the best way to enjoy Drunkle Vanya, provided you’ve done your pre-show homework. Lori Wolter Hudson’s somewhat bare script and Lee Liebskind’s direction give the audience many small rituals to participate in that drive the play forward, and not just from Cards Against Humanity. There are songs to sing along to, certain vulgar toasts to declaim, and a practically inhuman tradition of “icing” that all make the evening move more quickly and, more importantly, up the interactivity and fun factor of the play. In a sense, the Chekhovian original is just a line drawing for the creators to splash their own color onto.
April 10 – 25
LiveArt DC at
The Pinch Bar
3548 14th Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $15 – $20
Details and Tickets
Sure, sometimes that color clashes. I didn’t understand the choice of the Professor introducing himself with a few verses of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” or the motivation behind some of Yelena’s avoidances. But at the same time, I really didn’t give a damn. Those details weren’t why I was there. I was there to have a drunken, theatrical group experience with a bunch of strangers and to interact with those strangers on a sometimes heart-warming, sometimes funny, but always human level.
Past going in with some foreknowledge of the source material, all you need to go is an open heart, a dirty mind, and a desire to play and sing along. Oh, and some Gatorade for the next morning’s hangover.
Drunkle Vanya created by the New York City’s Three Day Hangover . Directed by Lee Liebeskind . Featuring Jenna Berk, Rebecca Ellis, Kevin Hasser, Karina Hilleard, Jon Jon Johnson, Bob Manzo, Rasik Ohal . Produced by LiveArtDC . Reviewed by Alan Katz.