From June 1st until the 26th, residents of Southern California have a rare opportunity to explore, at the Pasadena Playhouse, a classic that has only become more profound via the passage of time: Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The introspective play, inspired by one of the Russian playwright’s earlier works, The Wood Demon, takes place in 1890’s rural Russia and examines the disenfranchisement of hope, along with the irrepressible sense of grief and, even worse, the existential vacuum that results when squandered lives are ruefully identified by the ones living them. Driven by a purpose to uncover truths about its characters, Uncle Vanya is not worried about appearances, and rather makes notable sacrifices to get its audience to ponder the ultimate question about the meaning of life or, more fittingly, the meaning of suffering.
This translated version by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky is directed by Michael Michetti, and stars Anne Gee Byrd, Brian George, Brandon Mendez Homer, Jayne Taini, Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz, Sabina Zuniga Varela, and finally Hugo Armstrong as Uncle Vanya himself.
Armstrong, who has an impressive résumé of work across various media and genres, graciously took the time to discuss his glowing impressions of working with Bryan Cranston earlier this year alongside his analysis of what his character (Uncle Vanya) is trying to achieve, what he brings to the role, his inspirations as an artist, and how Chekhov’s unbiased commentary lends itself to poignant characters who paint a compelling picture through the storytelling of live theater.
Thanks for doing the interview, Hugo. You’ve been quite busy doing TV, film, and stage work; in fact, you were just in Power of Sail with Bryan Cranston at the Geffen Playhouse this past March…
Armstrong: He [Cranston] almost pisses you off because there’s a level of brilliance to the guy that’s inherent. There’s genuine talent, and ninety-nine percent of what makes that guy phenomenal is hard work; he’s a machine, he’s so good, he’s hilarious, and he’s so generous on stage. They asked me before the play if I wanted to understudy. I swore the idea off but said ‘yes’ this time – as I got to understudy Cranston. As an understudy, you have to mimic one’s blocking; I found out when he’s [Cranston] not in the center of the scene, he surrenders focus and attention. Points to the generosity of the guy; he’s brilliant and hysterical to work with. We’d be on our back, rolling around, and holding our stomachs. The whole cast was super close; we were all hanging out, getting pizza and beers a few times a week. Cranston has this beer that’s he’s pushing (Dos Hombres Mezcal); it’s delicious stuff, and after we ordered pizzas, this guy [Cranston] would whip us a batch of stuff and serve us some drinks.
Additionally, this play [Power of Sail] was our first time back on stage since the pandemic. We had staggered calls for rehearsal, so the thing that was really telling was that we all showed up for everyone else’s scenes, to see each other work since we all missed it so much. Cranston and I also bonded over both playing LBJ in All the Way and, yes, we did indeed compare Johnsons!
[Cranston’s selflessness] relates to what Chekhov brings to the theater with Uncle Vanya — this idea that there is no one person, or character, that should or is the center of attention. My mom said to me, ‘We’re all sideshow people,’ and that’s kind of what Chekhov writes. It’s about looking at actual, real people and having conversations about real things. He [Chekhov] doesn’t seem to judge his characters. The beauty of that is there isn’t one of these characters who is more important than any other character. There are some that are the subject of what’s going on and others not; there’s nothing that can survive without the whole.
How did you get cast as the title character, Uncle Vanya?
Armstrong: Michael [Michetti, the director] asked me to audition, and I didn’t want to audition for Uncle Vanya. I was more interested in the doctor. I really love those big monologues about ecology; it’s one of the first big plays that deals with the destruction of our planet in a real, direct way. First audition I went to, I read for the doctor, and I didn’t prepare for the other one. Thankfully, he [Michael] gave me a call back and said, ‘I’d really like for you to prepare Uncle Vanya…if you can have a look at it and tell me what you think.’
I became interested in Uncle Vanya by examining what he did, as one who worked on this estate, which includes livestock, crops — and he’s the one who has increasingly over the years had to do more and more work of that himself. He and Sonya have their hands in the dirt; I help out at a ranch once a month for a week, and I help out with landscaping as a side gig, and it’s incredibly hard work. Obviously, he comes to a point where the meaning in his life is pulled out from under him. I think all the characters are experiencing that, and looking at meaning in their life and what it means to be alive.
There’s a beauty to the absurdity of human suffering, and of human existence. I’m not talking about people being hurt or in pain, but the kind of misery people give themselves — and how people deal with that describes their character perfectly. We all carry an unknowable X factor; Uncle Vanya feels he’s missed this potential and he wants other characters in the play, especially the girl he likes, to fulfill her potential. He sees how full of life she is, as he’s come to the expiration of his usable vitality. Ultimately, the artist’s job is to go in and explore and bring back information about what that world looks like. And as Chekhov said, it’s not the responsibility of artists to provide answers as to why these places — why this inner geography exists — but to keep asking questions.
How did you draw your inspiration to play Uncle Vanya?
Armstrong: As I mentioned, sometimes I work at a ranch; it’s extremely hard work and I don’t work a tenth of those who own and operate it every morning. I feel that, physically, that’s a touchstone, and psychologically he’s [Vanya] encountering this idea of the great man. He’s looking at the professor and he’s been hanging all of his suffering and sacrifices on the deification of this other person (the professor) who he believes is of a higher order than other human beings. He believes this to such an extent that he is willing to sacrifice his own instincts and passions (what he wanted to do with his life) and surrenders this to the fellow — and it gets annihilated before the play even starts. He encounters that through a terrible crisis of self.
As people discovered during the pandemic, you can get caught in the loop of meaninglessness and not understand the why of it. The play is appealing in that sense, as is Vanya’s crisis; here’s a man who can build barns and raise crops and do these amazing things, but he really doesn’t completely understand his inner landscape. So, there’s a sense of arrested development. That kind of pain, and self-incineration is really and potentially the most transformative that you can go through.
In what ways would you say your perception of your character has changed from day one of rehearsal until now?
Armstrong: We started to rehearse last Tuesday [May 3rd]. My perception of the character changed for sure. It’s the idea that Uncle Vanya can be big. I’m 6 5”. I don’t see too many large Vanyas staring back at me; he’s not big, but I’m big. When I started thinking of him, I put him in a diminished physical state, but he can actually be as big as he needs to be and is experiencing for the first time how expansive he his. Physically, my initial idea was that he’d be played on the smaller, more inept side, but I don’t feel that way anymore, as he’s actually in a new way of being; he’s been released to a certain extent.
He was purposefully blinding himself as not to see real life and thought he was doing the right thing by doing that. He’s been radically transformed before the play starts into this exalted freer state, and slowly we see the changes he undergoes; there’s a crisis that takes it course.
How much of a say have you had on the look (wardrobe) and feel of the character? What’s it been like working with the director?
Armstrong: We’ve been given freedom by the director [Michael Michetti]. We’re still kind of working that out right now. It’s a work in progress; we haven’t tried costumes yet, but there is a wildness to the character that I want to make clear. Michael is wonderful to work with; he’s not only open but interested in what actors’ ideas are and what is going on internally and externally. I don’t know how aware Vanya is of the way he’s supposed to do anything, including dress. The fact that he’s wearing clothes is pretty great!
You’ve done it all as a performer — TV, film, and theater. How does your approach to theater compare to the other two? How fulfilling is theater compared to TV or film?
Armstrong: When I was a little kid, I used to go the movies, and I wanted to be in the movies; there is a feeling I get when I go to the movies that is like no other feeling. I assume if you’re an actor in the movies that you would not only feel that feeling, but that you would feel it in a more concentrated and more exuberant form. Nothing can be further from the truth; it’s hard work. Jack Lemmon said, ‘I don’t get paid to act, I get paid to wait.’ Not that I don’t love it as there’s an intimacy to that kind of work that you can’t get anywhere else.
You do your absolute best and you listen, and you’re careful, daring, and then you go home. And then the movie comes out a year later, and you see how it turned out. The theater is so much more immediate, happening right now; the whole thing is happening right now — for better or worse. You get to do it from beginning to end and have it all happen that night; there’s nothing like that in the whole world. That is why theater will always be around.
I had a masterclass with Athol Fugard, a South African playwright. Someone asked him, ‘What do you think will happen to theater…will theater die?’ He said it will never die, and to just think about some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape with two people left in the whole world; they go out foraging, with their cans of beans, sitting around the campfire, and one of them says ‘Something strange happened to me today…’ And there you have it, it’s as simple as that – storytelling, that conversation, being absolutely in the moment. It’s a high-wire act and not for the faint of heart — or it can be prescribed as medicine for the faint of heart.
In 3rd or 4th grade, I had a stutter, terrified of interaction, and through this purely imaginative play, I was gifted not only this wonderful community, world, and group of friends, but was gifted a way to explore the world and myself in an ongoing way that requires I do not be judgmental of others. You certainly can’t judge your character; that’s the cardinal sin and that’s what I appreciate about Chekhov. These aren’t good or bad guys; they’re human beings and there is no false two-dimensionality.
Lastly, as an English speaker, how do you capture the mood and intent of a play that was originally written in Russian?
Armstrong: Do some things get lost in translation? I can’t imagine it didn’t. If I knew what it was, I’d try to put it in a play. Regarding this translation, what is wonderful, is they [Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky] strive to elicit the musicality of it, and they didn’t try to modernize it with language, or make it cool, or introduce pop references, or current slang; it’s a classic for a reason. It’s stunningly complex with a dedication to ordinary language.
The translation is beautiful as it’s painstakingly culled out with the spirit of the original in its rhythm. I don’t speak Russian, never been to the country, never been to 1883, but it continues to be a classic because the themes hold true, including the problems humans go through in a day or a lifetime. If you’re true to those, then you’re being true to life — and that will always be interesting.
For more information about Uncle Vanya at the Pasadena Playhouse, and to purchase tickets, please visit: pasadenaplayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529