July 25, 2012
Actors and directors love to do classic works. It gives them a chance to size themselves up against the myths and memories of earlier, legendary performances and productions. And those of us who are theater junkies love to see them do it. That gives us the chance to look anew at these works that define the theatrical canon and, perhaps, to witness some history in the making.
This explains how I ended up seeing two versions of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya within just the last four weeks.
The first was the Soho Rep production, directed by the ubiquitous Sam Gold from a new adaptation by his frequent collaborator playwright Annie Baker and starring a treasure chest of New York’s best stage actors. It was scheduled to run for a month and close on July 15, but has proven such a must-see that it’s now been extended through Aug. 26.
The second production is the Sydney Theatre Company’s, helmed by the Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, who is considered one of the world’s reigning Chekhov interpreters, from an adaptation by the company’s co-artistic director Andrew Upton and starring Upton’s wife and co-artistic director, the Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett. Its brief run at City Center as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival ends this weekend (click here to read about the evolution of their production).
The New York Times’ Ben Brantley so loved the Ascher-Upton-Blanchett version when it played at the Kennedy Center last year (it gets “under your skin like no other I have seen,” he wrote; click here to read the whole review) that despite the disappointing experience I’d had the last time I saw Uncle Vanya (click here to read that review) my theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.
But just a few weeks later, I read that Soho Rep was planning to do the play and I couldn’t resist seeing what three of my very favorite showmakers—Gold, Baker and the inestimable Reed Birney as the disillusioned Vanya—would do with it and so Bill and I bought tickets for that one as well.
And I’m glad we took the double dip because the companies have taken radically different approaches to the play. And both are worth seeing.
Gold and Baker’s is almost aggressively contemporary and emphasizes the melancholy of this play about a group of interrelated and unhappy people whom economic circumstances have forced to share a Russian country house (click here to read about the thinking behind their version).
Baker, who is credited with the costuming, has dressed the actors in the kind of casual street clothes they might have worn in the rehearsal room. Andrew Lieberman’s set looks like thrift-shop cast-offs and Mark Barton’s lighting design leans heavily on the on-set lamps that stagehands and the actors plug in to signal the start of each act.
It’s a determinedly no-frills take on the play that reminded me of David Cromer’s revelatory modern-dress version of Our Town and the new no-set, no-props Cock: in all three cases, the viewer is forced to focus on the play because there’s not much else there but the play.
This stripped-down aesthetic extends to the seating for the Soho Vanya. The inside of the theater has been arranged so that there are no real seats. Instead, the audience sits on carpet-covered platforms that surround the playing area. It creates an intimate space in which to see the play but unless you’re in the first row there’s no where to put your legs.
Most people, except for the occasional women unlucky enough to be wearing a skirt, sat yoga style at our performance. But, as my numbed knees will attest, it’s not the most comfortable way to see a play.
So it’s a testament to the production that I was not only riveted by it, but moved as well. Although Baker’s language is decidedly modern, the play’s themes of unrequited love and missed opportunities are timeless. And the actors she and Gold have assembled are fearless in exploring them.
Birney is unsurprisingly excellent as Vanya but the spotlight may have been stolen by Michael Shannon, who brings an edgy, idiosyncratic charm to the role of Astrov, the doctor who falls in love with Yelena, the restless wife of the much-older professor who is his patient.
Meanwhile Merritt Wever, best known as the cheery junior nurse on TV’s “Nurse Jackie,” is wrenching as Sonya, Vanya’s self-effacing niece who is helplessly in love with the doctor and who gives the play’s famous final speech which, in this production, becomes an elegy for all those who lead lives of quiet desperation.
There is more comedy in the equally conversational adaptation that Uptown has written for the Sydney Company. And it’s a fancier production. He and Ascher have updated the time period from Czarist Russia at the turn of the last century to the Soviet Union at midcentury.
Ascher’s longtime collaborator Zsolt Khell has designed an elegant dacha that is just rundown enough to suggest the economic hardships that all but the highest members of the Communist Party endured during that period.
And costume designer Györgi Szakács has underscored the class differences in this supposedly classless society by incorporating touches of peasant wear into the outfits of the characters who live in the country, while dressing the professor and Yelena, who have recently arrived from Moscow, in sleeker, more fashionable outfits.
Blanchett, long a favorite of fashion magazine editors, looks fabulous in these clothes. And, of course, she acts fabulously too. Chekhov is prized by actors because he wrote roles that allow them to show off both their dramatic and comedic talents, often within the same scene. Summoning her considerable skills, Blanchett makes Yelena simultaneously spoiled and unfulfilled, slapstick silly and achingly sad.
She is well matched by Richard Roxburgh who plays the hapless Vanya (although I found Roxburgh to be so endearing that it was hard to understand why Yelena wouldn’t respond to him) and by Hugo Weaving, familiar to fans of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogies, who plays an equally alluring Astrov.
They and their colleagues have created a stylish and intelligent production. And yet, it didn’t move me in the way that the one at Soho Rep did. Bill, on the other hand, felt exactly the opposite way. He admired the work the Soho Rep company did but was transported by the Sydney crew, even though the acoustics in City Center made it difficult to hear everything those actors said.
That, of course, is the magic of great theater. And it is the reason those of us who love theater grab at the chance to see great works, particularly when presented by artists of this caliber, over and over again.