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A CurtainUp Review
Herskovits’ new take on Vanya is very nonconventional, a cross-pollination of Brechtian theater, Joycean stream-of-consciousness, and a clipped American idiom. The play’s boldly restructured and proceeds without traditional scene breaks (or an intermission), with non-speaking actors holding signs to indicate the passage of time. Many of the characters seem to be suffering from some form of aphasia too, starting sentences that break off like old dry wood, or their words trailing off to nowhere. To punctuate the comedy, Herskovits has Uncle Vanya wander about in striped pajamas, lamenting the fact that the old Professor Serebryakov and his second wife Helena have come to stay at their estate, and that his daily life seems to have “jumped the track.” What you see in the acting area is a handsome parquet floor, white linen curtains that stretch endlessly across the stage’s back wall, a number of plain folding chairs, and at center stage, a stuffed black bear who stoically gazes out at the audience. The costumes by Annie Simon which include fur trimmed pajamas are equally unconvential. This less than authentically Russian look conveys the emphasis on comedy as well as the stagnation of a provincial country house with American color.
In a program note, Herskovits cites that the entire creative team was involved in the process of translating Chekhov’s Russian text into English. Their pouring of old wine into new bottles is more telegraphic than most English translations. It’s as if they held a tuning fork to Chekhov’s music but couldn’t quite tune all its vibrating sound waves.
This production is at its best when Vanya (the expressive Greig Sargeant) and Astrov (the suave Edward O’Blenis)’ are lost in their romantic designs for Helena (Rebecca Hart). You see these two middle-aged men hopelessly in love with a beautiful married woman who is utterly incapable of loving either. The ménage a trois that plays out during the evening is bleakness itself.
The acting is up and down. Greig Sargeant’s Vanya is tops, with his emotional candour and dyspeptic outlook. Edward O’Blenis’ Dr. Astrov blends sophistication with middle-aged moping. Mary Neufeld rightly plays the old Professor as an old dried-up mackerel. Rebecca Hart handles Helena well, though I wish she had registered a bit more ennui. Susan Hyon, Clare Barron, and Don Castro are passable as Sonya, Nanny N., and Telegin, respectively. Each has glowing moments but could use more sustained comic energy.
This play comes with its own celebrity. Every seasoned theatergoer knows Vanya, has an opinion on it, and probably has seen a number of productions over the years. At the 1963 Chichester Festival, Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier paired as Vanya and Astrov and won acclaim. In more recent memory, Ian McKellen and Anthony Sher have played these parts (1992), as well as Derek Jacobi and Roger Rees on Broadway (2000). Some of the better productions have come straight from Russia, with no name actors. Indeed, The Maly Theatre Company of St. Petersburg breezed into The Brooklyn Academy of Music a few seasons ago, performing the work in Russian with English subtitles. Is it any wonder that directors yearn to undertake new approaches.
Herskovits's post modern reworking is not your grandmother’s Vanya. However, it will put you back in touch with it as a Chekhov comedy.
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