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A Sense of Plays 

Can original, Vermont-focused adaptations lure audiences back to local theater?

Shakespeare said the theater's goal is "to hold ...the mirror up to nature" -- to show the audience its virtues and vices, its hopes and fears, its past and future. Drama reflects its community, and two Vermont theater companies are taking that dictum to heart this spring, as they produce plays that "hold the mirror up" to life and mores in the Green Mountain State.

One production looks to Vermont's past, the other to its present. Lost Nation Theater's Stone, which is currently in rehearsal, tells the stories of workers in Barre's once-thriving granite industry. Vermont Stage Company's Vanya/Vermont, starting its run this Wednesday, sets Anton Chekhov's 1899 classic Uncle Vanya on a modern-day organic farm, where references to St. Petersburg and samovars are replaced by lines about Manhat-tan and Vicodin.

Two Vermont-themed plays in one season: Is it a coincidence? Perhaps not. In the past year, both Montpelier's Lost Nation and Burlington's Vermont Stage have seen unexpected declines in ticket sales -- part of a regional slump that has also affected highly touted shows presented by the Flynn and Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center.

Some commentators, including Lost Nation Artistic Director Kim Bent, have suggested that recent events -- the war, the election -- have driven Vermont's theater-goers into their cocoons. Bent and Mark Nash, artistic director of Vermont Stage, are counting on plays with local relevance and grassroots appeal to coax them out again, or even appeal to a larger audience that doesn't usually look to the stage for its entertainment.

"I think that theater should reflect the community in which it's produced. To have something specifically created with the community in mind is a producer's dream," says Nash, who's playing the title character in Vanya/ Vermont. Likewise, Bent says that Stone, which he's writing and directing for Lost Nation, "is an audience-broadening activity for us."

Both directors hasten to add that the Vermont-themed plays were conceived well before the onset of their recent budget woes. Both also mobilized emergency fundraising efforts that generated much-needed cash.

Whatever their commercial potential, Stone and Vanya/ Vermont might best be qualified as labors of love. Each emerges from a director's long-time affection for a text: New York-based director Jason Jacobs' for Uncle Vanya; Bent's for the Barre-set novels of Vermont author Mari Tomasi. And both plays raise provocative questions about Vermont's legacy and its future.

*****

From April to mid-October, Lost Nation Theater resides in Montpelier's City Hall, with a stage in the lofty central room. Its offices are nested in the balcony. When the company first moved in, in 1989, the space was "empty, unused," says Bent. "We painted it, put curtains on the windows." Now, "there are hardly any weekends when something's not happening."

There will be multiple things happening during the April run of Stone. When audiences arrive for the show, they'll find actual sculptors working in the lobby and in front of the building -- some creating clay models, others perhaps carving letters into stone slabs. In the lobby, attendees can view historical exhibits created by one of Lost Nation's partners in the show, Barre's Vermont Granite Museum. When the curtain rises, they'll be serenaded by "a couple of string players, a couple of piano players, a concertina and guitar," says Bent. The musicians will play a rich repertoire of ethnic music, from Scottish laments to Italian arias. During the play, slide projections will flicker over the audience's heads, and actors in period dress will brush past as they head up the aisles toward the stage.

It's all part of an effort to "make the audience feel like part of the show," says Bent, who has shoulder-length gray hair, glasses, and a fondness for pointing out metaphors and parallels. By recreating the atmosphere of Barre in the 1930s, Bent hopes to bring alive a world that currently exists only between the pages of books -- and, perhaps, in some elder Vermonters' memories.

Stone was inspired by Tomasi's 1949 novel Like Lesser Gods, which chronicles the lives of granite workers in Barre. "I had always had it at the back of my head to team up with a great American writer, like Arthur Miller, who could take that material and make it into a great American play," says Bent.

Though Miller -- who died in February -- wasn't available, Bent took notice when Shel-burne's New England Press put Tomasi's novel back in print, then followed it up with last year's publication of Men Against Granite. The latter work consists of hitherto unpublished material from a WPA oral-history project conducted by Tomasi and Roaldus Richmond in the late 1930s. As its introduction states, "Benjamin Botkin, the national folklore editor for the Writers' Project, was horrified by the rise of fascism in Europe, so he charged his writers to find occupationally and ethnically diverse life histories." In Vermont, "Barre was the obvious choice."

Bent explains that around 1900, the granite industry and railroads attracted a huge influx of people to Barre, including "Italian sculptors, Scottish quarrymen, Swedish workers, Spanish stoneworkers and, to some degree, French-Cana-dians." Assigned to take snapshots of this rich cultural pageant, Tomasi and Richmond interviewed Barre residents and produced a series of narratives in what Bent calls "pretty authentic speech," representing not just granite workers but "store owners, the gypsy peddler on the street, bartenders ...It's a portrait of a community that was really complex."

As Bent and Lost Nation Co-Artistic Director Kathleen Keenan read the book, it occurred to them that they could take a "more documentary approach to the material and let these people speak for themselves on stage." In combination, those individual voices create a community portrait, "kind of a Spoon River/Under Milkwood-esque type of event that would give people a real sense of the local origins of folks here," Bent suggests.

Taking on Men Against Granite threatened to be a monumental task. Bent had to compress 300 pages and "lots of colorful characters" into two hours of stage time. His guiding principle was to "bring out the parallel between the quarrying and sculpting of the stone into something beautiful, and the gradual formation of a coherent community from these disparate elements," he says. "The real focus becomes the relationship between the artist-sculptor and his work."

Accordingly, Bent "took the liberty" of using the figure of sculptor Elia Corti as his narrator. Men Against Granite tells the story of his 1903 murder in a political brawl in the words of an Italian grocer. Corti's famous monument can still be seen in Barre's Hope Cemetery. "The interesting thing about Corti is that he was apparently a pretty nonverbal person," says Bent. "So he'll speak minimally in the show and be a thread, tying things together."

Another challenge was bringing out the drama in a source text that is essentially a series of monologues. Although first-person accounts remain at the center of the play, Bent looked for opportunities to expand and enliven them. In one of the play's monologues, for instance, an Italian widow who runs a rooming house describes the people who gather on a Sunday afternoon for music and conversation. "She points out characters around the piano, and the tableau in the background comes to life, almost like a production number," Bent says. He also created "collaged monologues" of different quarry workers whose words "segue" into one another. Thus, "The process of quarrying the stone emerges as a kind of dance."

The process of bringing Stone to the stage began last fall, with a series of "invited audience" sessions in which actors read the material in early draft form. In mid-March, Bent finalized his cast of 12, which includes John David Alexander of Burlington and Lost Nation veterans Bill Pelton, Mary Wheeler, Judy Milstein and Elizabeth Wilcox, among others. They'll be dressed in costumes by Cora Fauser and assuming appropriate accents to represent the ethnic rainbow of mid-century Barre. "The challenge of sustaining your accent when you're hearing several different others is particularly difficult," says Bent. "It's like singing harmony. In our assimilated state, we don't really get to hear that anymore."

There's an inherent drama -- perhaps even tragedy -- in the history of Barre's stonecutters. Even as they wrestled recalcitrant granite into beautiful forms, many fell prey to the ugly fate of "stonecutter's TB," as accumulated silica particles lacerated their lungs. Explain-ing what drew him to the material, Bent says, "There's this central scene in Like Lesser Gods where this stonecutter's doctor is asking him, 'Why do you do it, knowing that this is killing you?' The carver responds by saying, 'You have to cut it to know it is hard stone -- beautiful, lasting. Always when I carve a name on a memorial, I feel, well, important. God creates new life, and when He sees fit to take it away, we stonecutters take up where He left off. We take up the chisel and carve the name, to make a memory of that life.'"

Working on the project has made Bent realize that "a name isn't just a name ...especially when you're talking about how you're going to be remembered," he says. He's found himself becoming "more conscious of names" and the implicit connections they make. For instance, he cites a moment in the play when actress Mary Wheeler, a "seventh- or eighth-generation Vermonter" from Barre, tells a story that involves an "Ezekiel Wheeler." Is the actress evoking her real ancestor through the medium of art, or is this just a coincidence? Bent doesn't know, but he can say with confidence that "the names of people that are talked about in [Men Against Granite] are going to be reflected in the audience."

And that built-in connection to the local audience is part of the play's appeal. Bent thinks "People might be interested in coming to this show who aren't regular theater-goers necessarily ...for very specific personal reasons having to do with the history of the area, the granite industry." Others, he suggests, might be drawn by the possibility of learning something new about Barre, a place they thought they knew.

Lost Nation has produced Vermont-themed material before. In 1997, the Times-Argus commissioned the company to do a play in honor of the paper's centennial. Bent acknowledges, "What happened for us last year with the drop-off in audience made us look all that much harder at our programming choices for this year. There probably was some influence there toward doing work that we thought would be totally connected with the community. At the same time," he adds, "this is something we've wanted to do for a long time."

*****

If Stone reconstructs a lost world, Vanya/Vermont seems almost painfully contemporary. Kathryn Blume, who wrote the update and is playing the role of Sonya, describes one of the play's central dilemmas as that of a Generation X-er facing middle age. "You're starting to contend with 'I had huge dreams, I was gonna conquer the world. What am I really doing with my life? How many choices do I have now?'"

Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, set on a country estate, explores the plight of characters who discover too late that they're going nowhere -- that they've given their best years to thankless, perhaps useless, labor. The title character and his niece, Sonya, have devoted themselves to working the estate in order to support Sonya's father, a celebrated old academic blowhard. But when the professor and his beautiful young second wife come to visit, Vanya sinks into depression, finally realizing how unworthy the old man is of his sacrifice. It doesn't help that Vanya's besotted with the young wife -- and so is his friend Dr. Astrov, who swigs vodka to forget about the scenes of peasant suffering he witnesses. In his spare time, Astrov plants trees, lamenting that in these modern times, "Forests are ever fewer and fewer, rivers dry up, wildlife is wiped out, [and] the climate is spoiled" by the hand of man.

That sort of proto-environmentalist rhetoric convinced director Jason Jacobs that Vanya belonged in Vermont. When Chekhov used Dr. Astrov to discuss deforestation in Russia, Jacobs says, he was "asking this thematic question of 'What are we doing to our landscape -- and if we're treating our environment this way, what are we doing to each other?' That seems to make a lot of sense in looking at the type of development that's happening all over America and that Vermont has been staving off."

Jacobs, who's the co-artistic director of New York's Theatre Askew, has been friends with Blume since college. Visiting her here over the course of a decade, he says, "I got a perspective on how Vermont is so different from anywhere else I go in America. I wanted to work on something that would speak specifically to this community. Being a "big Chekhov fan," he had the idea of "taking the play and plunking it in this community in a really visceral, valid way."

Jacobs discussed his idea with Blume, who "immediately said, 'Well, yes, Vanya would be an organic farmer,'" he recalls. "She knew how to look at these characters."

"Based on those conversations, I started writing," Blume chimes in. The writing process began last summer; new drafts emerged from a reading in August and a workshop in January. Jacobs, who'd "studied the play intensively in grad school," gave Blume feedback about where particular moments fit in Chekhov's dramatic arc. Blume hammered out modern dialogue, following the original more or less scene by scene. "It really started to have its own voice," Jacobs says. "[Blume] found a humor that's true to Chekhov and runs throughout the whole play and undercuts the angst -- pulls the rug out from under it."

At an afternoon rehearsal at FlynnSpace, less than a week before opening night, the melding of Chekhov and the 21st century is apparent. The scene is easily recognizable from the original as a climactic confrontation between Vanya -- now named John Peterson -- and Astrov, now "Mike Astor." But the language has a different ring. "Do you remember that 'Star Trek' episode where Kirk falls in love with the perfect woman?" asks Nash, playing John. Skinny, balding and spectacled, he exudes morose nerdiness as he begs Mike to be his loyal Spock and help him "forget" recent events -- or, failing that, to give him "a scrip for Prozac." "This is your life," intones the stalwart Mike, played by New York actor Larry Gleason.

How did Vanya morph from poetry-quoting Dostoyevsky wannabe to "Star Trek" geek? "Normally when you translate the play, you translate the language," says Blume. "What we're doing is a cultural translation." For instance, after she and Jacobs observed that "there are very few pop-culture professors" these days, they decided to transform the character of the pompous academic into an "airport novelist," someone who could still sweep into a small town and be treated like visiting royalty.

Waffles, Vanya's down-at-the-heels-neighbor with folksy speech patterns, is now "an old-time Vermonter," says Blume. Mike Astor, who runs a land trust, now "talks about sprawl and traffic and Wal-Mart and the decline of community values." And earthy mother-figure Marina is given to expressions such as "Oh, poop on a rope!"

Will the topical and local references pull in local viewers? Nash declines to offer a prediction, saying, "If I knew how to read an audience, I'd probably be in the stock market instead of in the theater." He does note, though, that two of the most successful productions in Vermont Stage history were Vermont-themed: an adaptation of Chris Bohjalian's Midwives and 1998's Mad River Rising. He adds that "the advance sales have been pretty good, though more and more people are waiting till the last minute."

Nash is also "encouraged" by a 25 percent increase in subscription sales over last year, which he says inclines him to believe that "the first two shows of the season, which didn't sell as well as we expected, were an anomaly, partly brought on by the election." He acknowledges that Vanya/Vermont may be "tricky to sell," because people won't understand what it is, but he hopes that "in the first week there will be a real buzz around the play."

As an advance marketing tactic, Nash mailed publicity packets for Vanya to humanities faculty at the University of Ver-mont, St. Michael's College, Middlebury College and Champlain College. One who took heed was Michael Katz, a professor of Russian at Middle-bury and sometime teacher of Chekhov. Katz and his colleague Ludmila Bilkic plan to attend the play with 15 or 20 students.

Asked to explain the contemporary appeal of a Chekhov play, Katz says, "I think Chekhov is the most tolerant and the least judgmental of Russian writers. There are no villains in a Chekhov play. There are people who try their hardest to live their lives and be happy, but they're all fallible, and we sympathize with them. It's a very modern approach." Katz sees Vanya/Vermont's environmentalist overtones as true to Chekhov, who went beyond his contemporaries' lyrical nature descriptions. "Chekhov is actually issuing cautions," Katz explains, "saying, 'We should be careful of nature, because there's not as much of it as there used to be.'" Such warnings are likely to resonate with a Vermont audience.

Kim Bent sees an interesting parallel between Stone and Vanya/Vermont. "In both cases there's a template that's worked with to create something else," he says. "They're very different stories, but we're both trying to make theater connect to modern audiences."

Is the immediacy of a local setting enough to tempt Vermonters, particularly young ones, away from the television and Internet and into the theater? Or are they content to see themselves reflected in the homesteading Montgomery Center couple on "Wife Swap"?

We go to the theater, of course, not just for the mirroring -- we can get that at home -- but to gain new insights into the same old problems; to see ourselves from strange and revelatory angles. Perhaps the alchemy of 19th-century Russia and present-day Vermont, like that of Mari Tomasi's Barre and Bent's mise en scene, will produce just that effect: leading us abroad in order to bring us home again.

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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