REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Maly Drama Theatre at CST)


Hear the creative genius of Chekhov in his native tongue

vanya 1
Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg presents:
Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
directed by
Lev Dodin
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
performed in Russian with projected English translation
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a hard play for me to crack. The 1899 work is simply subtitled “Scenes from Village Life,” which holds a clue to the nature of the play. It isn’t a straight comedy or devastating tragedy—it has elements of both, of course, but Chekhov’s genius shows through the fact that the play more or less captures snapshots of a summer. I guess that’s why they call him one of the fathers of realism. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre brings a rare treat home this weekend, a chance to catch this masterpiece in the original Russian, performed by one of the greatest theatre companies in the world, the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg. Although the whole run is pretty much sold out, it would be well worth it to do whatever possible to get your hands on some tickets.

arts-graphics-2005_1162161a There is another production of the play going on right now at Strawdog, directed by Kimberly Senior (our review, ★★★). That exceptional production is personal and well-acted. However, the Maly Production blows up the play to operatic scale, weighing the work so as to come off like a Dostoyevskian epic. For example, the production at Chicago Shakespeare is about an hour longer than the one at Strawdog even though the dialogue remain pretty close. Lauded director Lev Dodin and his cast sit and stew in Chekhov’s world; they aren’t concerned with pushing the pace to appease an audience. The company has worked on this production for years (there’s European theatre for you) and they know how to drain every drop of subtle emotion from the text. Still, at least for this American audience member, the show wears you down. A certain hyper-receptive mood is required to really appreciate what is happening on-stage, which is different than what we’re used to here in Chicago. Without an open-mind, this production can feel draggy and tiresome. Once you allow yourself to get sucked in, however, Maly’s brilliance jolts the intellect and gut.

The main tension in Vanya, and in most Chekhov’s pieces (and, maybe, in most plays in general), is between talk and action. Doctor Astrov (Igor Chernevich) “does,” the listless housewife Elena (Ksenia Rappoport) mostly complains. Uncle Vanya (Sergei Kurishev) “does” some things—he runs a freakin’ farm—but not the things he believes he should be doing. Nearly all of the characters complain about boredom and mourn their “wasted” lives.

These actors obviously have an intimate knowledge of Chekhov’s language. They truly live in the world, and much of this production’s comedy comes from unscripted physical moments. Watching them move around is like a master-class in how to stage a play. Lev Dodin’s staging is like a chess game played out on the giant hardwood floor supplied by set designer David Borovsky. Every move is meticulous, calculated, yet digs to the root of Chekhov’s characters and themes.

vanya 2All of the actors stand out, even Alexander Zavialov as the rarely-seen Waffles. Kurishev’s Vanya is melancholy and self-effacing, funny and sad at the same time. Rappoport is complicated and sexy as the lusted-over Elena; it is very clear how so many men could be caught in her web of charm. Elena Kalinina gives a marvelous performance as Vanya’s passed-over neice Sonia. Her final speech is positively heartbreaking. It floods the giant theatre like an ocean.

Maly Theatre is renowned as one of the greatest theatres in the world (it is one of three named ‘Theatre of Europe’ by the Union of European Theatres), and they clearly have a profound understanding of drama. By doing a play by their countryman, they add a clarity not often seen in the States. Anton Chekhov is already known as an insightful writer, but these Russians can swim in his genius—Chicago Shakespeare presents an once-in-a-lifetime experience here that should not be missed.

Rating: ★★★★

Extra Credit



Vera Bykova (Marina, Old Nurse) graduated from the Sverdlovsk State Theatre School. Ms. Bykova was invited to join the Maly Drama Theatre in 1972. Maly Drama credits include: Pelageya Lobanova in Brothers and Sisters, the Landowner’s Wife in Mumu, Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, Old Nurse in Uncle Vanya, and Neta in The Moscow Choir by Ludmila Petrushevskaya. Film credits include: Opposition, To Cross the Line, Chance Waltz, Place Under the Sun and Evening Lights. She is the recipient of the Honored Artist of Russia award and winner of the USSR State Prize.

Igor Chernevich (Doctor Astrov) graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema. He joined the company of the Maly Drama Theatre in 1989. Maly Drama credits include: Bogdanov in Gaudeamus, the Musician in Claustrophobia, Erkel in The Devils, Yasha and the Student at the Ball in The Cherry Orchard, Osip in A Play Without a Title, Ignat Baev in Brothers and Sisters, Piyusya in Chevengur, Jean in Miss Julie, Duke of Cornwall in King Lear, and Barchatov and Kovchenko in Life and Fate. Other theater credits include Morphine (Theatre Bobigny). Film credits include: The Ring, Nicotine, The Spirit, Dolce Vita and Knock-Out.

Igor Ivanov (Professor Serebriakov) graduated from the Leningrad State Theatre, Music and Cinema Institute. Mr. Ivanov performed with the Tomsk Young Viewers’ Theatre from 1979 to 1980, and during the same year became an actor with the Maly Drama Theatre. Maly Drama credits include: Yegor in The House, Petr Zhitov in Brothers and Sisters, Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, Lebyadkin in The Possessed, Glagolev in A Play with No Name/Platonov, Barukh Naileben in The Disappearance, Professor Serebriakov in Uncle Vanya, King of France in King Lear, Mostovskoy in Life and Fate, and James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Mr. Ivanov is a recipient of the People’s Artist of Russia award.

Elena Kalinina (Sonia) graduated from the Saint Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Arts. Ms. Kalinina joined the company of the Maly Drama Theatre in 2000. Maly Drama credits include: Galya in The Moscow Choir by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Sonia in Uncle Vanya, Grekova in A Play with No Name/Platonov, Regan in King Lear, and Dasha in The Possessed.

Alexander Koshkarev (Servant) graduated from the Leningrad Theatre, Music and Cinema Institute. He joined the company of the Maly Drama Theatre in 1989. Maly Drama credits include: Lysodor in Gaudeamus, the Muzhik in Claustrophobia, Florisel in The Winter’s Tale, Erkel in The Devils, Yakov in The Seagull, Toyama in The Damask Drum, and Shishakov and Getmanov in Life and Fate.

Sergey Kuryshev (Voinitskiy Ivan) graduated from the Leningrad State Theatre, Music and Cinema Institute. Mr. Kuryshev joined the company of the Maly Drama Theatre in 1989. Maly Drama credits include: the Artist, Conductor and Patient in Claustrophobia, Petya Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard, Kirillov in The Posessed, Platonov in A Play with No Name/Platonov, Captain Kopenkin in Chevengur, Frank Sweeney in Molly Sweeney, Trigorin in The Seagull, Voinitskiy (Uncle Vanya) in Uncle Vanya (National Theatre Award, Golden Mask for Best Actor), Gloucester in King Lear, Viktor Shtrum in Life and Fate, and Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Kseniya Rappoport (Elena) graduated from the Saint Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Arts. Rappoport joined the company of the Maly Drama Theatre in 2000. Maly Drama credits include: Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, Elena in Uncle Vanya, and Sophia in Play with No Name/Platonov. Ms. Rappoport is the recipient of the 2009 Venice Film Festival Prize for Best Actress.

Tatiana Schuko (Madame Voinitskaia) attended the Theatre Studio of the Leningrad State Univercity. She joined the company of the Leningrad Drama and Comedy Theatre (now called Liteyni Theatre) in 1958, where she has been working since. Maly Drama credits include: Lika in Moscow Chorus (Golden Mask Award for Best Actress) and Madam Voinitsky in Uncle Vanya. Ms. Schuko is a recipient of the Peoples’ Artist of Russia award and has won two National Prizes of Russia.

Alexander Zavyalov (Telegin Ilia) graduated from the Leningrad State Theatre, Music and Cinema Institute. He joined the company of the Maly Drama Theatre in 1982. Maly Drama credits include: Petr Zhitov in Brothers and Sisters, Virginsky in The Posessed, the Old Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, Uncle Sasha in Small Restaurant (Cabaret), Bugrov in A Play with No Name/Platonov, Weinberg in The Disappearance, Kirey in Chevengur, Treplev in The Seagull, Telegin in Uncle Vanya, and Boyet in Love’s Labor’s Lost.



Lev Abramovich Dodin (Director) was born in 1944 in Siberia, where his mother had been evacuated during World War II. He began studying theater as a child at the Leningrad Young Viewers’ Theatre directed by Matvey Grigorievich Dubrovin. Immediately after graduating high school he entered the Leningrad Theatre Institute and studied under the famous theater director and teacher, Boris Vulfovich Zon.

Mr. Dodin’s debut as a director came in 1966 with the televised performance of First Love, based on the story by Ivan Turgenev. Directing credits include: It’s a Family Affair—We’ll Settle It Ourselves (Leningrad Young Viewers’ Theatre); The Minor and Rosa Berndt (Leningrad Theatre of Drama and Comedy); A Gentle Creature with Oleg Borisov (Bolshoi Drama Theater and Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre); The Golovlev Family with Innokenty Smoktunovsky (Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre); Bankrupt (Finnish National Theatre); the opera Elektra with Claudio Abbado (Salzburg Festival); Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Florence Musical May festival); The Queen of Spades with Semen Bychkov (Amsterdam, Florence and Paris); Mazepa with Mstislav Rostropovich (Scala in Milan); and The Demon with Valery Gergiev (Opera Chatelet in Paris).

Lev Dodin became the Maly Drama Theatre’s artistic director in 1983. Maly Drama directing credits include: The Robber, The House, Brothers and Sisters, Lord of the Flies, Stars in the Morning Sky, Gaudeaumus, The Possessed, Love under the Elms, Claustrophobia, The Cherry Orchard, A Play with No Name, Chevengur, and Uncle Vanya.

In 1992 the Maly Drama Theatre, and Lev Dodin, were invited to join the Union of Theatres of Europe. In 1998 Dodin’s Maly Drama company was the third theater granted Theatre of Europe status, after the Odeon in Paris and the Piccolo in Milan. Lev Dodin is a member of the General Assembly of the Union of Theatres of Europe.

In 1967 Dodin began teaching acting and directing. He is currently a professor and the chair of the stage direction department at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Arts. Lev Dodin has raised many generations of actors and directors, and has taught master classes at theater schools in Great Britain, France, Japan and the USA.

Mr. Dodin’s directing and shows have won many state and international prizes and awards, including state prizes of Russia and the USSR, the Triumph Independent Prize, Golden Mask National Awards and a Laurence Olivier Award. In 2000 he was presented the European Theatre Award. In 2001 he received a Russian Presidential Award.

David Borovsky (1934-2006, Set Design) began working as an artist in Kiev with the Lesya Ukrainka Russian Drama Theatre. He designed sets for Shostakovich’s Katerina Izmailova at the Taras Shevchenko Theatre of Opera and Ballet, then worked with director Leonid Varpakhovsky at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre and the Maly Drama Theatre. Theater and opera collaborations with director Lev Dodin include: Lord of the Flies, Molly Sweeney, Uncle Vanya, and King Lear (Maly Drama Theatre); Elektra (Salzburg Festival); Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Florence Musical May Festival); Queen of Spades (Amsterdam, Florence and Paris); Mazepa (Scala in Milan); Demon (Chatelet) and Salome (Opera Bastille in Paris). Other set design credits include: Alive (the play was staged in 1968 but was banned until its first public performance in 1989), Mother, Hamlet, The House on the Embankment, The Intersection, Crime and Punishment, Master and Margarita, The Dawns are Quiet Here, Vladimir Vysotsky, Believe, Comrade, among others. Mr. Borovsky was awarded numerous Russian and international awards, including the Russian State Prize and the Triumph Independent Prize. Mr. Borovsky also holds gold medals from the Russian Arts Academy, the Prague Quarenialle, and the Yugoslav Trienialle, and is a People’s Artist of Russia recipient.

FYI: bios courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare’s website

One Response

  1. […] REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Maly Drama Theatre at CST) « Chicago Theater Blog […]

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