Chekhov and Chill: “Uncle Vanya: Quarter Life Crisis” and “The Voynitsky Collection”

Brooke Schueller looks at Goat in the Road Productions’ millennial adaptation of a Chekhov classic and Momma Tried’s accompanying installation.

Shannon Flaherty and Mack Guillory III in Goat in the Road Productions’ Uncle Vanya: Quarter Life Crisis at the Ether Dome, New Orleans. Photo by Joshua Brasted.

Since when are we having quarter-life crises? If Uncle Vanya: Quarter Life Crisis depicts the painfully average lives of twentysomethings flailing in ennui’s flaccid grasp, unable to say with gumption what they want from life, then The Voynitsky Collection, an accompanying installation compiled by artist duo Momma Tried, serves to catalogue the minutiae of these characters’ lives in immaculate, archival detail.

Goat in the Road Productions’ adaptation of Uncle Vanya transforms Chekhov’s group of Russian peasants tasked with maintaining an ailing country estate into a batch of young professionals in the throes of existential crises. Uncle Vanya has many familiar millennial motifs: start-up culture, shifting career paths, queerness, longing. And the characters smoke a lot of pot. Momma Tried’s The Voynitsky Collection exists in richly detailed defiance of the banality of the characters’ life choices, and, together, the installation and the performance suggest a curiously modern paradox: that we believe our lives are fascinating, in all of their mind-boggling particulars, and worthy of documentation; and that purpose in life arises only from active engagement with life instead of passive spectating.

Uncle Vanya capitalizes upon this rift between watching and experiencing through copious reference materials thrust upon the viewer. Each seat in the audience is set with a booklet, A Compendium of Movement for the Quarter Life Crisis, circa 2009, that elaborately charts the characters’ emotional trajectories through the four acts of the play using notated line graphs, quotations, and densely worded interpretations of their physical gestures. The play program adds to this robust exploration of these characters’ interior lives and includes a flowchart explaining their relationships to each other. A numbered map painstakingly details a collection of items sprinkled throughout the set and helps navigate The Voynitsky Collection. However, viewers scarcely have time to process the program and the booklet before the play begins.

Installation view of Momma Tried’s The Voynitsky Collection at the Ether Dome, New Orleans. Courtesy the artists.

On view in its own gallery space behind the audience, The Voynitsky Collection—named for the siblings whose home sets the stage for Uncle Vanya—augments the production’s central concerns by handling the characters’ otherwise unremarkable belongings in exceedingly curatorial terms: Display Case One: Artifacts from the Early Years, Dollhouse: Forensic Replica of the Voynitsky Estate, Display Case Two: Artifacts from the Later Years, Collection Catalogue, and Photographic Portraits from the Voynitsky Estate. Viewers are left to make sense of this extensive fictional documentation which serves as an index to Goat in the Road’s stage production.

Far and away the most captivating parts of the installation are Display Case One and Two, if only for the sheer volume of trinkets amassed under the glass, with each piece exerting a peculiar fascination. Neatly typed cards, akin to something one might see in a mid-century natural science museum, accompany the collection’s objects. The items themselves give the impression of years’ worth of glorious garage sale scores: fortune cookies, dead animals (butterflies, a shriveled rodent, one toad), an assortment of fake teeth, a spray bottle marked RIO GRANDE, dildos, pocket knives, keys, religious icons, crocheted Santa dolls, a one-hitter—all of which are listed, detailed, and photographed in a glossy artbook volume.

Momma Tried, Dylan Hunter as Astrov, 2015. Courtesy the artists.

But more evocative of the production’s millennial malaise are the Photographic Portraits from the Voynitsky Estate. Seven photos show the cast members’ heads thrust into different dollhouse rooms, their features comically large in relation to the tiny furniture. As interesting as the artifacts from the display cases may be, the photographs depict the characters as literally too large for their tiny lives, however carefully (and even beautifully) curated.

The photographs respond succinctly to the same question entertained by Goat in the Road Productions and even Chekhov himself in Uncle Vanya: How does one find purpose? To have a genuine engagement with life is to carry a deep-seated appreciation for both the massive and the minute. During the play, Marina cross-stitches the famous Chekhov quote that ends up on the mantel: “Only entropy comes easy.” The rest comes down to work.

Editor's Note

Goat in the Road Productions’ Uncle Vanya: Quarter Life Crisis, with an installation by Momma Tried, was performed November 5 - 30, 2015 at the Ether Dome (3625 St. Claude Avenue) in New Orleans.