Dan Hiatt on Chekhov, regret and gunshots

Aug 05


Last summer, Dan Hiatt was in three California Shakespeare Theater shows, including The Triumph of Love (above, with Domenique Lozano). This summer he is playing the title character in Cal Shakes’ Uncle Vanya. Photo by Kevin Berne

Actors tend to love working on Chekhov plays. There aren’t many of them, but they’re juicy – rich in character, simple on the surface and utterly complex underneath.

Dan Hiatt, a familiar face to Bay Area theatergoers, has done two of Chekhov’s big three: The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. Now he’s closing in on the third. He’s playing the title character in California Shakespeare Theater’s Uncle Vanya, which previews this week and opens on Saturday in Orinda.

Hiatt, taking a break from rehearsal in Berkeley, says he’ll always jump at the chance to do Chekhov.

“He puts human nature on the page more accurately than most other writers, it seems to me, and with such humor,” Hiatt says. “The plays are more than a century old, yet they’re still absolutely recognizable. The plays are a great kind of loving, humorous, tongue-in-cheek takes on what human nature is, what it is to live our lives. The other thing is I don’t think there’s a bad character, an unrewarding character in any of them. Even the smaller roles require so much.”

Playing Vanya, a man looking back on his life with great regret, Hiatt has been loving rehearsals, calling them a “joy…up to now.” Then he sort of hit an emotional wall and had to do some deep thinking about the character.

“It’s almost like maybe I’m even sort of looking back on the time when I was Vanya’s age – I’m maybe a few years older than he is – from the vantage point of having gone through what he’s going through,” Hiatt says. “You get through that, and you reach a place where you’re pretty comfortable and happy. I’m there, Vanya isn’t. Looking back on all this angst, it’s better to have been through it than to have to imagine it entirely. The advantage of being older is not having to go through it in life while you’re working on the role.”

Though successful and one of the most admired actors in the Bay Area, Hiatt says his phase of existential regret had to do with his life choices.

“I never married or had children,” he says. “That’s something I think helps to tether people to something. And then living a life on stage – wow, that was really insignificant. There’s nothing to show for it and I’m still struggling to make the rent. It’s the story of age. I think probably a lot of people at 3 a.m., no matter what their life situation, look back and say, `If only…’”

Some complain that nothing much happens in a Chekhov play, characters just sit around and yak, but Hiatt disagrees.

“We all sit around most of the time, yet we’re all wrestling with some life-changing thing everyday,” he says. “People are trying to work out their lives, dream about things not possible to them. That’s a tremendously active thing.”

Cal Shakes’ Vanya is directed by San Jose Repertory Theatre’s outgoing artistic director, Timothy Near, and uses an adaptation by Emily Mann that Hiatt describes as “active and muscular in language.”

“You really sense Vanya change over time in this script,” Hiatt says. “He grows much darker in the second act, so it’s maybe not as surprising when he runs off and grabs the pistol. Emily Mann has had some really great ideas here.”

To read Dan Hiatt’s thoughts on being a veteran Bay Area actor, visit my Examiner.com page.

Uncle Vanya begins previews Wednesday, Aug. 6, opens Saturday, Aug. 9 and continues through Aug. 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. There’s a free shuttle that runs between the theater and the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

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