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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Baker's script based on a literal translation of the original Russion text is unquestionably a translation. The characters and plot remain intact, with the focus on stylistic excess like run-on sentences and the translation of the words to be natural counterparts of language Russians would have used in 1898 — but, in the tradition of any good translation refraining from introducing a lot of too jarringly contemporary expressions.
Director Sam Gold's staging, on the other hand, is more of an adapter. While Baker's text changes are subtle rather than obvious, Gold's directorial vision is clearly visible from the moment you enter the totally reconfigured SoHoRep's Walkerspace. No signs of forests and period scenery. If Chekhov could see what the Gold and set designer Andrew Lieberman have wrought he'd probably be scratching his head a bit.
The director whose reputation as something of a Wunderkind is built on his helming new plays as well as revivals. Notable in the former category was his sensitive direction of Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens by his current collaborator Annie Baker. Of his work with classics, his take on The Doll's House for the Williamstown Theatre Festival misfired with an ending that didn't adapt but totally altered Ibsen's finale. Uncle Vanya, though perhaps too way out there for traditionalists, offers a uniquely exhilarating experience to the open-minded theatergoer.
Since Vanya is probably my favorite of the four jewels in Chekhov's crown, I've seen a half a dozen productions, and enjoyed the often lavish recreations of a Russian country home and the authentic costumes worn by its bored and unhappy residents. Each new encounter with these characters has been a testament to the enduring and universal appeal of Chekhov's unhappy and "bored. . .bored. . .bored" estate dwellers whose shared mantra is "I've wasted my life." Annie Baker and Sam Gold's collaboration is no exception. Indeed, their creative compatibility accounts for the plus factors of this production.
As Gold is attuned to Baker's penchant for long silences, so she seems to have seen her true-to-Chekhov text fitting perfectly into his vision. It is a vision that puts the viewers all around and so close to the playing area that they could practically reach for a cup of the tea that Marina, the family retainer is always ready to pour, and see the tiniest flicker of emotion on the actors' faces.
Baker's choices as the play's costume designer are obviously in keeping with Gold's replacing the trappings of a turn of the 19th century Russian estate, for a stripped down look. The characters don't really wear costumes, but ordinary street clothes; and yet, in keeping with the translation's objective to make the dialogue found naturally on modern American earss, so it's appropriate to give the actors a casual, present day look without changing the play's time frame as so many Chekhov and Shakespeare directors do.
SoHo Rep is small and flexible enough for scenic designer Andrew Lieberman to turn the theater into a wooden shell house, with carpeted risers all around the actors<> instead of conventional theater seats. Unlike the somewhat similar set-up for Mike Bartlett's Cock the seats surround a long rectangular playing area, minimally furnished with no especially Russian props except a samovar.
The whole idea seems to be for the intimacy of the staging and the consequent closeness to the actors to draw us in enough for our imagination to go into overdrive and see beyond the lack of period accouterments to conjure up out own more elaborate and historically accurate images. I think this will work best for audience members who are familiar with Chekhov and have seen a more traditional Vanya and can thus more easily conjure up memories of more sumptuous long-ago productions as they watch these people who look and sound just like them. On the other hand, SoHo Rep's very young and theater savvy regulars, may get into this even without prior encounters with the play.
Since Uncle Vanya is essentially a series of incidents and thus more character than plot driven, any production, but particularly one that doesn't rely on detailed Russianesque set-up, is only as good as the actors unreeling the hopeless infatuations, grudges and ironic humor of the characters they inhabit. This is doubly true for the actor playing the title character who has managed the estate for his brother-in-law, a duty gladly undertaken because he saw him as a great man — that is until the great man, his career in tatters, came to live at the estate with his young wife and Vanya realizes that he's wasted the best years of his life on a man who is as untalented as he is uncaring.
For Baker, having Reed Birney who also appeared in Circle Mirror Transformation play Vanya was the impetus for her to consider climbing on the very full bandwagon of Vanya transater/adapters. Fortunately, Birney, whose work has impressed me previously in more contemporary plays, proves to be an apt choice for this production's main malcontent.
Mr. Gold also draws strong performances from the other main and minor players, and it's a thrill to be able to watch them all up close. Merritt Weaver is a tremendously affecting Sonya, an innocent about love but mature enough to be her uncle's hardworking coworker. Our heart goes out to this plain girl who's silently and hopelessly in love with Astrov the doctor who sees the beauty and importance of preserving trees to maintain nature's equilibrium, but is unable to see the inner beauty of the plain girl whose only compliments have been that she has beautiful hair.
Michael Shannon is one of the most interesting and charismatic Astrovs I've ever seen, as is Maria Dizzia's Yelena. Even without fancy period gowns and hairdos, it's easy to see why middle aged Vanya and Astrov are so enthralled with her, In Astrov's case resulting in one of the longest house calls in real or theatrical history. Her stepdaughter too is strongly affected by her. A scene during which the two women bond by toasting each other from a single glass — one joyously and the other temporarily roused from bored lethargy — is a directorial and performance coup.
As with every Uncle Vanya I've seen, I found myself once again taken aback at how the Professor who has such a major impact, past and present, on all the other characters is such a minor presence in the unfolding incidents. And even when Peter Friedman's Professor takes center stage to announce his plan to sell the estate, it's the exploding Vanya who dominates. Having an influential character play a quite minor role is even more true for Rebecca Schull as the matriarch who let her admiration for her son-in-law before loyalty to her son and granddaughter. One actor who stands out even as a minor character is Matthew Maher as Telegrin, an impoverished landowner known as Waffles who's taken up residence on the Serebryakov estate and in an early scene helps to establish the play's dual genre of comedy and tragedy.
The director keeps the actors moving quite fluidly to different areas of stage so that no one ever sees their backs too long. The length of the playing area does make for some neck craning and poor sight lines during some scenes, and Vanya's periodic emergence from a trapdoor at one side seems seems an unnecessary symbolic underscoring of his unhappy situation.
Astrov's ecological concerns remain a potent example of Chekhov being a thinker ahead of his time and Uncle Vanya's timeliness and adaptability to audiences living in different countries and times. It's a play that can be seen over and over again and from many points of view.
I'll admit that there were times during the almost three hours of this Uncle Vanya I would have preferred sitting in a conventional seat and seeing a little more authentic scenery. Nevertheless, I was never bored and once again enormously moved by the tragic finale. As exquisitely staged with the long, silent moments Annie Baker loves, it seemed like a Baker-Chekhov handshake across time
With less than a 100 seats So Ho Rep shows tend to be instant hits. With the buzz surrounding this playwright and director, it's no wonder that the initially scheduled run has already sold out and been extended.
For more about Chekhov and links to other Uncle Vanya productions reviewed at Curtainup, see our Chekhov Backgrounder.
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