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: ★★★★
 

Extra Credit

Continue reading

REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Strawdog Theatre)

An exciting treatment of Chekhov’s ode to boredom

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Strawdog Theatre presents:

Uncle Vanya

 

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Through March 27th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

It’s been a good year for director Kimberly Senior. Her numerous productions, which have spanned all over the city, became critical and popular successes, such as critic top picks The Overwhelming at Next Theatre and All My Sons at TimeLine Theatre (our review ★★★★). This year she’s had the fortune of directing plays written by some of greatest dramatists the world has ever seen, like Arthur Miller, Martin McDonagh, and Anton Chekhov (twice). It’s obvious she loves the greats, especially Anton, the grandfather of subtext. This love and passion comes across in her production of Uncle Vanya at Strawdog Theatre, a nuanced and layered homage to one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com It is a common misconception that Chekhov wrote tragedies, one perpetuated by several melancholy premier productions directed by acting guru Constantin Stanislavski. In fact, the Russian master saw all of his works as comedies, albeit sometimes bittersweet ones. How well a cast and director understand this fact is a deciding factor in how a Chekhov piece will fare. The plot of Uncle Vanya, for example, basically boils down to some people being bored. Chekhov delves into the frantic monotony that drives people to break up marriages, friendships, and families. With a melodramatic twist, the play quickly becomes bland, stuffy, and unpalatable. However, if everyone understands the comedic elements in the writing, then the play punches hard. The latter is evident at Strawdog.

One of Senior’s strong points is her skill at bringing together some extremely talented actors. This isn’t necessarily hard when you’re working with Strawdog’s ensemble, but here almost every actor seems carefully tailored to their character. Tom Hickey’s portrayal of the titular uncle is deliberately understated, an interesting choice that makes the middle-aged character really pop. Hickey envelopes the character and personalizes the crap out of him. For example, instead of filling Vanya’s famous failed assassination attempt with rage or all-out despair, Hickey finds a quiet determination (with hilarious results). Shannon Hoag, who plays the object of Vayna’s affection Yelena, revs Hickey’s engines with heaps of teasing coyness, desperate boredom, and powerful austerity. Also in the mix are Kyle Hamman as the idealist doctor Astrov and Michaela Petro’s youthful Sonya. Crushed by the tedium of Russian provincial life, these characters find themselves locked in prisons of love, lust, and depression.

All of this is set against Tom Burch’s gorgeous scenery, which invokes the simple pleasures and pains of country living. The moveable walls are adorned in pink and stacked with shelves of drying herbs, flowers, and trinkets. As indicated in the play, though, nothing here is simple, not even boredom.

Occasionally the supporting cast misses marks. Tim Curtis’s Serebryakov (inconsequential academic, invalid, Yelena’s husband, Sonya’s dad, and Vanya’s frenemy) is a bit too cranky; Curtis overshoots here. And neither Senior nor Carmine Grisolia can show us a good reason why his character, Waffles, is a part of the story. Fortunately, the four leads entrench themselves in the script and overcome most shortcomings.

 

Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com Uncle Vanya - Straw Dog - 2/17/10 
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2010 - http://www.ockenphotography.com

Energy throughout the piece lags at times, a drawback from Hickey’s relaxed style that permeates the rest of the show. It’s a danger of the script, and Senior and the cast succumb. Chekhov’s language doesn’t require a dragging energy. Even though the characters are doing all they can to kill time (and sometimes each other), a production of Vanya can still keep the tensions and stakes high.

In Senior’s past work I’ve seen, I sometimes feel she plays to close to the vest and is afraid to make stylistic risks, even though she often directs some of the most produced works in the canon. This doesn’t come across in Vanya, and I think a lot of the reason falls on the daring cast she assembled. The design, directing, and bold acting collide to make Chekhov’s ode to boredom pretty thrilling to watch.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Continue reading