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Enigmatic Meaning Emerges as Motif Of 50th Arts Festival

Absurd theater in 'Time and the Room' contrasts with conventional 'Uncle Vanya'

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1996


"Go away, then," says Astrov to Yeliena in the last throes of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." Then he adds, with a sardonic, resigned irony: "Finita la commedia!"

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The comedy has now indeed ended: The Edinburgh International Festival No. 50 is over; the crowds have all gone away.

While some Edinburghers may be sighing with relief, no doubt others have that emptied feeling that assails one not only at the end but most of the time in Chekhov's plays.

But the emptiness - in Chekhov and in Edinburgh - is tinged with elation based on survival and continuance.

In this year's first-ever opening festival lecture, Prof. George Steiner mischievously suggested that now, when things are going well, might be a good time to bring the festival to an end. No such termination is, of course, remotely considered. No. 51 will undoubtedly happen in 1997.

German director Peter Stein's production of the Russian play, performed by Italians in Italian with English subtitles, came near the end of the festival. It was a cross-cultural, international production if ever there was one - perfect for Edinburgh.

It also happened that this "Uncle Vanya" was one of the most memorable - and yet one of the most conventional - of this year's contributions (to the prestigious main festival program as opposed to that of the determinedly not prestigious, phenomenally large "Fringe").

An experienced festivalgoer along the row from me at "Uncle Vanya" remarked: "This is the first piece of real theater this year, if you know what I mean."

I knew what he meant.

It was a four-act play, a classic, directed with no clever tricks and above all with an intense and sensitive faithfulness to the playwright's intentions. As Stein made clear to his fans in one of the illuminating "Festival Insights," his admiration for Chekhov is extreme. (These "insights," which have been a distinct feature of this festival, are hour-long sessions in which key festival participants share ideas with an audience.) And yet Stein's actors seemed far from being the mere puppets of either Chekhov or the director.

The Chekhovian picture of human life does not make much sense of it. And "Uncle Vanya" has moments that are surrealism in embryo, hovering in a limbo of absurdism neither tragic nor comic. Stein's production treads this uncertain tightrope knowingly, leaving the audience with many questions and few answers.

'What does it mean?'

Throughout this festival, the recurrent question that seemed to engage directors and performers in "insights," TV interviews, and program notes was "What does it mean?" The assumption behind this question is that music, dance, drama, and art must have meaning. But the insistent answer was that the only meaning possible is a lack-of-meaning.

If there was a theme to emerge this year, it was more than anything this.

Consider: From Nottingham Playhouse came a (rare) production of a play by German writer Botho Strauss called "Time and the Room." The "room" is constant (more or less), but time is all over the place. Not only are the characters persistently confused about time, but the audience even more so.

Underneath the considerable humor of this latter-day instance of absurd theater lies, perhaps, some sort of theory of chance and chaos. But this clever, if rather Anglicized version, invites the audience simply to enjoy the nonsensicality for its own sake: Seeking explanation would be a final absurdity. On the level of the inexplicable, much of this episodic piece of theater seemed to make perfect sense.