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CurtainUp DC Report

December 1997 -- Home for the Holidays
By Les Gutman

>December DC Report Topics
NOTE: Click on the links below to go directly to a topic.

Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov.
A Look Back at 1997
A Look Forward to 1998
Web pages mentioned in this report
Links to topics covered in prior DC Reports and to DC Theater Guides

While November produced a frenzy of DC theater activity that resulted in the first two-part DC Report, a holiday calm has now descended on Washington. (Much of official Washington indeed goes home for the holidays.) Instead of the our usual diet of "new" theater, this report will include CurtainUp's first visit to one of DC's best known theaters, Arena Stage, which is having a homecoming of its own with a classic play that addresses (among many other things) the meaning of home. 
Review: Uncle Vanya. Tthere is a lot of hugging in this production of Uncle Vanya. It occurs to me that it is representative of the way both director Zelda Fischandler and translator Carol Rocamora feel about the play: their work gives it a warm, loving embrace.

Ms. Fischandler (now the head of the graduate theater program at NYU) was a founder of Arena Stage in 1950, and returns to direct Chekhov's Scenes from Country Life in the theater-in-the-round that now bears her name. Her meticulously elegant staging bears all of the marks of her skill and experience. She is keenly aware that the magic of Uncle Vanya is that it is about nothing and yet about nearly everything. Her direction follows the Chekhovian mandate: "Let the things that happen onstage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life." She fine-tunes the smallest of details, letting the larger ones find their own manifestations.

The translation is a new one, and it works exceptionally well. It does precisely what it undertakes to do: in Dr. Rocamora's words, it is f"luid...and accessible, ...while...remaining faithful and true...." CurtainUp's recent features on translations (especially Estelle Gilson's article and the interview with James Magruder, links to both of which are supplied below) armed me with a newly critical eye for translations. This one not only holds up well under that advanced degree of scrutiny, it also corroborates the notion that the shelf life of a translation is about one generation. (For comparison, read the popular 1960's translation by Ann Dunnigan published by Signet, or the more recent Michael Frayn Methuen paperback version. It is fascinating how much less accessible and fluid, respectively, they now seem. For anyone interested, a link for getting Dr. Rocamora's translation is included at the end of this report. I've also included a link to CurtainUp's extensive feature of Chekhov and his work, which in turn references reviews of other productions of Chekhov plays this season.)

Like the translation, the overall production feels simultaneously contemporary and classical. Ming Cho Lee's sets are spare and muted but still brightly inventive in evoking the indoor/outdoor environments especially as aided by Nancy Schertler's beautiful lighting work. Lindsay W. Davis renders exceptionally handsome and appropriate period costumes.

Chekhov's "story" is a simple one. It considers the disruptive effect (socially, culturally, commercially and romantically) of a visit by retired Professor Serebryakov (Henry Strozier) and his young second wife Yelena (Melissa King) to his country estate, where his daughter from an earlier marriage, Sonya (Angel Desai), lives with her maternal grandmother (Dorothea Hammond) and her Uncle Vanya (Charles Janasz). Astrov (Tom Hewitt), a doctor called to treat the professor's gout/rheumatism and who makes what must be the longest housecall in theatrical history, figures prominently in the intrusion as well.

As classic as this production may seem, the performances are far from conventional. Extremely well-acted, they are nonetheless strangely disconcerting. The most significant roles seem wrongly cast, and characterizations seem to reach for the edges of the wide latitude Chekhov allows. Zelda Fischandler certainly has a view here, and she executes it with near perfection; but the traditional look of this production can be a bit deceiving.

Chekhov's lines regarding Dr. Astrov suggest a tired man who has aged faster than his years; Tom Hewitt appears handsome and vibrant. His performance, clear and charismatic as it is, shifts attention from Vanya's developing anguish. Janasz's clowny portrayal of Vanya can't help but remind one of his previous Marx Brothers roles at Arena. Here, it conspires with other recalibrations to diminish the clarity and importance of the title character, and makes him a source of easily dismissed comic sympathies. In Strozier's professor, we find a bit more to like than one would normally expect.

Young Angel Desai renders a terrifically affecting version of Sonya: innocent, vulnerable, earnest, sensitive and self-aware. The altered balance leaves her role more in focus, and she exploits the attention well. Still, she is far too attractive to be credible as the homely girl reduced to having "beautiful hair" that Chekhov anticipated. One is hard pressed to understand the attention visited on the less radiant Yelena, or the pivotal sense of resignation that Sonya is called upon to accept.

Chekhov's neutrality affords the opportunity to retell his classic play from a decidedly fresh perspective. That this production feels so comfortable and enjoyable notwithstanding this reëngineering says a great deal about its elasticity, as well as the quality of this production.
by Anton Chekhov, translated by Carol Rocamora 
with Henry Strozier, Melissa King, Angel Desai, Charles Janasz, Tom Hewitt and others 
Directed by Zelda Fischandler 
Arena Stage Fischandler Stage, 1101 6th Street SW (202) 488-3300 
Web page address is shown below 
December 12, 1997 - January 18, 1998

A Look Back at 1997 When I started writing CurtainUp's DC Report over the summer, the stated goal was not to cover all DC theater comprehensively, but rather to focus on new or otherwise important productions that would be of interest "beyond the Beltway." I am pleased that we (and DC theater) seem to have succeeded. One of the shows I reviewed, Proposals, was enroute to New York when it stopped in DC on its pre-Broadway run (see link to NYC second review). It went on to open on Broadway (with generally less enthusiastic reviews than it received in DC). Another show -- that I said deserved to be seen by a wider audience -- Never the Sinner,  made a completely unexpected transfer to off-Broadway after a successful DC run. (See link below of NYC second review) It garnered a very favorable review from the New York Times and a rave from Clive Barnes in the New York Post. A third show, Working, has also been attracting attention in New York. The Daily News reported, on the strength of the DC reworking of the show, serious consideration is being given to an off-Broadway outing. Two other shows on which we reported, Othello starring Patrick Stewart and House Arrest First Edition, have also received considerable national press coverage.

A Look Forward to 1998 After the first of the year, we will be tinkering with the way the DC section of CurtainUp is arranged and accessed (with the goal of making it easier and more useful). With those changes, we will be well-positioned to cover a winter and spring filled with exciting prospects. Multiple world and U.S. premieres have already been announced at Arena Stage, Signature Theatre and Woolly Mammoth, with the latter two wasting no time getting started in January. Other companies will be following up with new works as well. We look forward to the new year, and take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday season and a terrific 1998.

Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report Arena Stage website:
Estelle Gilson's translation article
James Magruder interview
Second Thoughts Feature on Proposals in NYC
Second Thoughts Feature on transfer of Never the Sinner to NYC
For more information on Carol Rocamora's translation
CurtainUp's feature on Chekhov

©December 20, 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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