Uncle Vanya vs Transformers near the 4th of July

Optimus Prime and Uncle Vanya had a party

It’s a weird culture that mashes Chekhov into the same week with Optimus Prime, but we followed an experience of Uncle Vanya (with terrific performances by Rob Matney and Liz Fisher, and staging that puts you right there on the farm) with a 3D romp through the Transformers universe, and somehow I’m trying to connect the dots. In Chekhov’s play, you could see trouble brewing – Rob says “that Vanya is about the moment before an epochal and cataclysmic culture shift as a culture and these lives look into a future that appears to promise little.” Sound familiar? Transformers, on the other hand, offers a world where one set of massive robotic aliens wants to enslave the human race, and another set – against all logic – are sworn to protect us. A massive battle levels Chicago; at the end, humanity is free from Decepticon enslavement (but not necessarily from our own particularly human enslavements, not addressed in the film, though the nastiest character on board is the human accountant, played by Patrick Dempsey, who makes a devil’s deal with the Decepticons).

While I experienced fanboy delight at the expert use of 3D and exquisitely choreographed robotic battles in the Transformers film, the very real tensions within Uncle Vanya were more real and more compelling. No Decepticons there, but the sense of a subtler, willing enslavement – hard-working farmers exploited by a spoiled elite, and everyone miserable except perhaps the character Sonya, who ends the play with these words: “We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. . . . In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. . . . We shall rest.” (This makes me think of the idea of grace in Malick’s Tree of Life, which is probably a reference to the concept of “actual grace”: a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures (men, angels) for their eternal salvation, whether the latter be furthered and attained through salutary acts or a state of holiness.)

After Vanya and Transformers, we had a muted 4th of July – in the midst of drought, no fireworks, surely a metaphor for our times.