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A CurtainUp Review
The Third Annual Chekhov Now Festival
Vanya x 2: AuNT Vanya and Uncle Vanya
plus a pair of short Chekhov farces wrapped in a hysterical package
by Les Gutman
As an encore of sorts to having seen two productions of Hedda Gabler in the same week last month, this past weekend I saw two productions of Uncle Vanya, with only a fifteen minute intermission between the two. (Both are part of this year's Chekhov Now Festival, which continues through November 18.) For my finale, perhaps some enterprising theater companies will invite me to watch two versions of Dance of Death performed simultaneously.
The night before seeing this double feature, I was watching Charlie Rose interview Kevin Kline. Noting that Kline played Trigorin in last summer's star-studded production of The Seagull in Central Park (review linked below), Rose asked if there were any other roles he was pining to play. Kline didn't blink before responding that he wanted to play all of the roles in Chekhov.
Now, to be fair, one can assume he meant all of the major roles, and only the male ones, but then I don't suppose he had seen these two takes on Uncle Vanya. The experience of watching two productions of this great play in such proximity is to appreciate the enduring and expansive appeal of its characters to actors, and to audiences as well. Where else do we find humanity displayed in such abundance?
These two stagings are markedly different in approach. The Aunt version, while largely a faithful adaptation, overflows with interesting, fresh ideas -- external influences that shape our understanding of the range and depth of what Chekhov wrote 102 years ago. The Uncle treatment, its contemporary tone and new translation notwithstanding, lets Chekhov speak for himself. Both are worthy additions to the Chekhovian dialogue that this festival seeks to foster.
What impresses us about AuNt Vanya is how gently yet aggressively director David Karl Lee tweaks the play. The highlight of Cynthia Croot's Uncle Vanya, on the other hand, is how irresistibly robust her production feels, with little tinkering beyond a bit of belt tightening.
It's going to be difficult to describe Mr. Lee's concept without causing some readers to roll their eyes, but rest assured, this is not a production that elevates gimmick over substance. What may sound silly here is executed with conviction and without distraction -- a pretty remarkable feat. His Uncle Vanya has become Aunt Ivana (T.L. Lee), he begins each act with a prologue in which a splendid young girl (Zoe Jenkin) recites lessons she's learned from Uncle Milton's Ant Watcher's Manual and his cast sings songs made famous by Karen and Richard Carpenter. (He's also added to the text some material from Chekhov's early play, The Wood Demon, which Chekhov reworked into Uncle Vanya, the only idea that doesn't bear much fruit.)
What's striking about Vanya's sex change is how invisible it is. Mr. Lee has not attempted to use the idea as a platform for anything heavy handed; he just lets Ms. Lee make the most of her opportunity to play a plum male role. (Her's is the production's best performance.) All of the ant farm business is, of course, a play on words, but it never intrudes and shouldn't be dismissed too quickly. Consider Uncle Milton's lesson with which Act 3 opens: "Never mix ants from different colonies or you will surely start a war." And I am shocked -- please don't laugh at me -- at how comfortably Chekhov's characters break into songs the Carpenter made famous like "Close To You," "Top of the World" and "Rainy Days and Mondays". Maybe they should form a musical group. I'm sure Mr. Lee will realize they should call themselves The Carpenter Aunts.
What Ms. Croot's Vanya lacks in embellishment -- the press release suggests Chekhov is played here "straight up," the way Astrov likes his vodka -- it makes up for in pacing and performance. It's a more energetic effort, and it features a host of thrilling performances. Two performers who made strong impressions in Ellen Beckerman's Gull in last year's Chekhov Now Festival, C. Andrew Bauer and Margot Ebeling, deliver fine performances here (as Telegin and Yelena, respectively), Gail Neil is delightful as Marina and John Lenartz most effective as Serebriakov. But it is Gary Wilmes's Astrov and Ed Jewett's Vanya that set this production apart.
I've seen Mr. Wilmes numerous times before, but always in avant garde productions of playwrights like Richard Foreman and Richard Maxwell. Chekhov calls on different talents, and Wilmes delivers in spades. His is a finely nuanced, endearing and altogether coherent effort. Mr. Jewett is new to me, and conjures up similar facility. I've seen some terrific Vanyas and Astrovs before, none more pleasurable than these two.
So the struggle of Vanya continues, and our appreciation of Chekhov grows... Note: The festival schedule provides another chance to take in the Vanya double whammy in the reverse order on November 15. The less adventurous can see both with a long dinner break on the 17th, or of course individually at various other times as listed in the boxes below.
*****Festival Artistic Director Adam Melnick provides a look at Chekhov's lighter side in his staging of "The Jubilee" and "The Proposal". Although we are used to seeing Chekhov "comedies" that aren't exactly buoyant; these two short pieces reveal Chekhov's range. Melnick has staged them in a cartoon style, complete with onstage sound effects provided by Eli Shapiro, giving substance to Chekhov's belief that "[t]he more refined one is, the more unhappy". He's framed the show as a presentation on Chekhov's genius by the Teatr National Chekovia (a land where a thorough appreciation of Chekhov is a constitutional obligation). Sharon Cinnamon serves as the marvelous spokesperson for the troupe, which opens the show with a rendition of the "Chekovian National Anthem" and ends it with an "Ode to Chekhov". As Stanislavski rolls in his grave, we roll in the aisles.
Uncle Vanya at The Roundabout
Uncle Vanya at DC's Arena Stage
Worth Street Theatre's version of Vanya: Uncle Jack
The Seagull in Central Park
CurtainUp's Playwright Album on Chekhov, featuring background, other reviews, quotations and more
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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