By Tulis McCall
This is why I love the theatre – two people can see the same production – on the same night – and come away with radically different views on what went down – or up as the case may be. I read several glowing reviews and was looking forward to seeing this “new” interpretation of Uncle Vanya, written by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, that used contemporary language to filter Chekhov.
These reviewers saw something much different than I. Try as I may, I cannot muster up any enthusiasm for this production.
The pro’s are that this set (like the other Richard Nelson plays at the Public, The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family is intimate and almost appears unrehearsed. The return of Jay O. Sanders and John DeVries is a welcome addition as both men give exceptional performances. This is a Vanya you will feel in your gut and an Alexánder who’s narcissism fits him like a tailored suit.
Alexánder has returned to his former wife’s estate because he has no where else to go at the moment. He brings with him his new wife Eléna (an ineffectual Celeste Arias) who seems to charm not only Vanya but the local Doctor Mikhail Astrov (Jesse Pennington) just by breathing the same air as these two men. Both men are so infatuated that they are listless and forgetful. Duties are neglected and the world revolves around Elena. Sonya (Yvonne Woods) is Vanya’s niece and Alexánder’s daughter by his first wife and, get this, the real owner of the estate. Go figure. In the shadow of Elena, however, Sonya suffers from a case of invisibility. Her ownership of the estate is worth bubkus when it comes to matters of the heart. Because of Eléna, Sonya’s connection to Vanya is lost and her yearning for the Doctor is unrequited.
Watching over the sad circle is the old nanny Marína (Kate Kearney-Patch) who adds a certain weight to the goings on, and Vanya’s mother Márya (Alice Cannon) who seems not to know that she is in this story at all.
After you get the lay of the land, of course, you wait for something to happen. It never does. Well, that is Chekhov for you. Everything is happening on the inside while little appears to jump about on the outside. Which is all well and good except for the fact that these actors, with the exception of Sanders and DeVries, fail to bring that inner turmoil to life. As the Doctor, Jesse Pennington is, to begin with, unintelligible. He mumbles, and does even that quietly. Yes this is an intimate space, but we still need to hear AND understand. (The audience complaints about this, on the other hand, could be heard loud and clear as we left the theatre.) In addition, the Doctor is supposed to be on the mystery side of attractive. Pennington’s performance was very much lacking in that department, but it may be on account of him being inaudible. Celeste Arias is lovely and out of her depth as Elena. She does not have the bearing of a 27-year-old who is tackling life and all its messy bits. It does not help that her costume makes her look like a pre-school first year student. The only thing she is missing is bobby-sox and saddle shoes. Yvonne Woods does not fair much better as Sonya. She appears to have no purpose or tether and delivers the final crystalline speech with all the determination of luke warm cup of tea.
At the center of this disappointment is the script. Yes, I may be the only one to write that opinion.
Aye me. What was/is the point of this new translation? I did a similar exercise as part of my sophomore English class. We had to write out The Merchant Of Venice in vernacular English – by hand or typewriter. It was a terrific exercise and I still have my booklet around here somewhere. What an experience to jump into text and pull it apart and put it back together. I can understand why someone might try it. But in this case the result is a mushy mass of good intentions.
It takes Sanders and DeVries every ounce of their skills to light a match under this text, but so soggy is the writing that the flame fizzles out as soon as either leaves the stage. I would say that their performances make it worth the trip, but that would be stretching he truth.
I am reporting for the minority out here. Just wanted you all to know you nay-sayers are not alone.
WITH Alice Cannon (Márya), Celeste Arias (Eléna), Jon DeVries (Alexánder), Kate Kearney-Patch (Marína), Jesse Pennington (Mikhaíl), Jay O. Sanders (Vanya), and Yvonne Woods (Sonya).
Jason Ardizzone-West (scenic design), Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss (costume design), Jennifer Tipton (lighting), and Will Pickens (sound design).
The Hunter Theater Project at Hunter College (Hunter College President, Jennifer J. Raab) presents its inaugural production, the New York premiere of Anton Chekhov’s UNCLE VANYA through Sunday, October 14. Student tickets are available now for $15 with a valid student ID and single tickets are available for $37. Tickets can be accessed online at 212-772-4448and at the Hunter College Box Office at the Kaye Theater. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Hunter College – Frederick Loewe TheaterE. 68th between Park and Lexington