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
at
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: ★★★★
 

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