ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The story hardly bears repeating: Uncle Vanya (James Leach), a middle-aged Russian living on the family's country estate, accepts a life of obscurity because he believes in the spiritual mission of his brother-in-law, an ageing professor named Aleksandr Serebryakov (Ed Schultz). When Serebryakov suddenly shows up at the manor with his beautiful young wife Yelena (Lauren Kelston), passionate fireworks are set off.
As directed by Philip Emeott, this Vanya is played for its humor. We watch the chronically unsatisfied characters amble about, self-absorbed in their bitter complaints and incapable of seeing beyond the four walls of the manor. Emeott smartly stresses the comic aspects of the drama with very brisk pacing, having . the actors deliver their lines without indulging in melodramatic pausesg.
Significantly, the play begins in September, a month traditionally linked with returning to one's work in earnest. But here we see the traditional impulse go awry: Dr. Astrov (Richard Brundage), a long-time family friend, and the rest of the characters lay aside their work to concentrate on the professor's gout and to dote on his bewitching wife. As each scene unspools, we witness a destructive leisure infecting the house, and a kind of quiet desperation afflicting everybody's psyche. As the indolent Yelena puts it: "I'm dying of boredom. I don't know what I'm to do."
To fully understand Chekhov's play, one must really scratch beneath its dramatic architecture to consider the political climate of 1899 when it was written. Russia had very rigid censorship. There was a general lack of freedom in the middle class and only the aristocracy could exercise power or influence. No doubt Chekhov's original audience would be naturally sympathetic to this, but today's theater goers often miss the submerged Russian history. Thus, suffice it to say that Chekhov's characters aren't complaining for complaining's sake here. They are characters who represent the middle-class, who were oppressed by flinty-hearted aristocrats in the late 19th century.
The continuing interest of Vanya is not historical, however. It resonates with our current political landscape where citizens have a sense that freedom is a word that politicians manipulate for their selfish ends.
Carol Rocamora's translation is infused with colloquial idioms but without spoiling the essential quality and flavor of the original. She captures Chekhov's music and inimitable humor and makes him accessible to the audience. Seeing the Maly Theatre's Vanya last season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which the play was performed in Russian with English subtitles (for The 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth), did somewhat colors my view of Rocamora's translation and the current production. Though the present company is convincing enough, they perform Chekhov in a more self-conscious manner and without the raw energy and stinging flavor with which the Maly Theatre company peppered their Vanya.
A star of this production is Nikki Black's rustic set. The split-level stage design allows the sprawling narrative to come alive, and move ahead with a natural fluidity. It is coherently eclectic with period furniture and faithfully represents a half-dilapitated manor. Most impressive is a huge paneled window with gauzy-looking curtains, stretching almost the entire length of the back wall. Though clearly not done with a lavish budget, Black's scenery serves the drama well with its painstaking detail.
As for the acting. The cast succeeds in pointing up the farcical inconsistencies of Chekhov's characters. James Leach, playing the title role conveys the frustration of a middle-aged man who has wasted his prime. Bill Weeden, as the pock-marked Telegin (affectionately dubbed "Waffles"), possesses a suitably droll air and wit. Though Richard Brundage's Astrov and Lauren Kelston's Yelena lack a certain chemistry in their romantic scenes, they both are interesting to watch. While there are no standouts everybody is competent. .
One never files and forgets an evening with Chekhov. And this Vanya, though not flawless, is certainly worth a visit.