Russians (Shostakovich, Chekhov) entertain; also, `Art of the State'

Chekhov's `Uncle Vanya' at the Huntington Theatre Company is a handsome and straightforward production. But lack of a propelling concept keeps it from soaring into greatness. The play ``Uncle Vanya'' has such a low-key start that one is tempted to think it will be as tedious as its characters, who sit around a steaming Russian estate complaining how wretched life is. But Anton Chekhov's 1899 masterpiece rises into a subtly etched play about people caught in a transition between two epochs. Underneath the griping is a people who above all yearn -- yearn for engrossing lifework, for a finer life, for requited love. And who, for one reason or another, are stymied from getting what they want.

The Huntington Theatre Company's production of ``Uncle Vanya'' is beautifully mounted, finely acted, and honest. But there is something missing -- it never quite lofts into the full glory of the play.

All the right elements are there: a thoroughly researched and attractive set (Richard M. Isackes). Rich, true costumes (Ann Wallace). And some strong performances. Mary Ann Plunkett casts just the right note as the plain, steadfast, and loving Sonya. Stephen Markle brings a darkly commanding air to the part of the tree-loving Astrov. Monica Merryman, as the young, beautiful wife longed for by several of the men, conveys a graciousness that mitigates her character's indolence.

This company consistently turns out attractive, professionally acted shows. But what doesn't seem to be important is the compelling directorial concept that would make the production resound with a vigorous truth. Having a vision doesn't necessarily mean a wild new interpretation. But it does mean that what's going on under the lines -- the crumbling era, the heartbreak, and the subtle veins of humor -- is at least as important as the set. Director Jacques Cartier mines neither the humor nor the heartbreak enough, and the production suffers from tepidness.

And it ends, literally, with a cold thud. Instead of having Sonya perform her last rousing speech to Vanya, with the household all sitting together in comfortable, if dull, domesticity, Cartier stations her alone with Vanya. She then takes him into the main part of the house and slides shut the tall, wooden doors behind them. This snuffs out the warm glow the play can leave you with and leaves a much more darkly depressing end.

To get a feeling of what took place at Symphony Hall Sunday (Gidon Kremer, Daniel Phillips, Kim Kashkashian, and Yo-Yo Ma), you could have heard the following at intermission: ``The guy behind me had his watch alarm go off,'' one woman said. ``He didn't even bother to turn it off, and no one was the wiser.''

``Well, if you were going to find out if they play well together, you sure couldn't tell with that piece,'' said another.

``Actually, they play well together,'' said a third. ``I just can't stand that piece!''

The composition under discussion was Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor (Op. 144), the last written by Shostakovich, that eclectic and ever-calculating Russian, capable of the most original and searching music -- and accused of turning out much that is trite and cheap.

Which category does this piece fit in? Perhaps under ``searching'' but not yet finding.

The quartet form was supposedly the most intense and intimate genre for Shostakovich; he wrote more than half of them after visiting the destroyed city of Dresden and began to explore the expressive potential of quartets in capturing the horrors of war.

The six slow movements (Elegy, Serenade, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Funeral March, Epilogue) are aptly described as ``unreservedly and unrelievedly somber. There is no concession to popularity or appeal.'' More architectural than melodic, with ascending and descending motifs passed on slickly from instrument to instrument -- and varied from movement to movement -- the piece is eerie, squeamish, and hard to digest on purely musical terms. Suffice it to say, you don't leave whistling the 15th.

And that leaves us with an analysis of our performing foursome's contribution to the composition: Based on the concert's uneven beginning (Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546) and a rousing finish (Quartet No. 15 D. 887, by Schubert), I'll score them a B-plus. A much-practiced unity held the pieces together seamlessly, with the advantage in Shostakovich, at least, of getting a clear rendering of the composer's intentions.

Compared with last year's performance here, Miss Kashkashian has come the furthest in making her viola sing more in league with Kremer in the top register, and Ma anchoring the group with sleek and soulful strokes.

Daniel Phillips, unselfishly sublimating his solo instincts to the concerns of the whole, now seems odd man out.

In the wake of President Reagan's newest round of proposed cuts to the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the annual exhibition of the Massachusetts ``Art of the State'' assumes new significance. Since 1974 the Artists Foundation Inc. has been awarding fellowships to Massachusetts artists. These grants supply needed funds to artists often burdened by several jobs; in addition, the annual exhibition provides the perhaps more crucial opportunity for exposure to the public. Although Massachusetts has one of the largest state arts budgets, this year's exhibition almost didn't happen -- because of a lack of adequate funds. At the last minute the show was rescued, divided into three parts. The first round of painting fellows and finalists is now on view at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

These shows are an important barometer of New England culture. Although usually uneven, their importance lies as much in a kind of unique educational value as in an aesthetic one. Juried by a distinguished panel of out-of-state artists, they offer a rare chance to see a perceptive view of what's going on.

This year's show is no exception. The work ranges from the original and evocative to the mediocre and banal. All styles, from conservative Photo-Realism to rowdy Neo-Expressionism can be seen, a reflection of the current pluralism in artistic modes.

In the m'elange of paintings by 44 artists, certain themes emerge. Male-female relationships, female identity, and the literal act of painting appear as repeated topics. The symbolic potential of animals is apparent, with at least six artists using that vehicle to explore such diverse concerns as spirituality or environmental imbalance. Particularly fine is Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz's contrast of lushly beautiful exotic birds with an ancient, cracked plaster surface, an intriguing mix of forthrightness and mystery.

As usual, there's a lot of talent here, as well as a number of questionable works. In a show on such a broad spectrum, that is to be expected. The diversity gives us a sense that the state of the arts in Massachusetts is, in fact, healthy. An expansion of culture reflects a sound society. It would be an immeasurable loss and a needless folly if that growth contracted from lack of critical financial resources. Through Feb. 22.

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