Tis’ the season for Chekhov, but then again when isn’t it. Wedged between Target Margin Theater’s postmodern production of "Uncle Vanya" last month and the Sydney Theatre Company’s production starring Cate Blanchett next month comes playwright Annie Baker’s adaptation of Chekhov’s 1898 play.
Baker teamed up with acclaimed director Sam Gold for a third time (following "Circle Mirror Transformation" and "The Aliens") on "Vanya." The production is staged in a claustrophobic living room with the audience seated around all four sides of the set (designed by Andrew Lieberman).
"Uncle Vanya" begins as aging professor Alexander Serebryakov (Peter Friedman) and his much younger second wife Yelena (Maria Dizzia) relocate to Serebryakov’s country estate that once belonged to his late wife. Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya (Merritt Wever) and his former brother-in-law Vanya (Reed Birney) now run the estate with Marina (Georgia Engel), a nurse and impoverished landowner Telegin (Matthew Maher). Yelena, a beauty, catches the attention of both Vanya and Astrov (Michael Shannon), a country doctor who continually visits the estate. From here, the tragicomedy (with actually very little comedy) takes off.
All of the characters pine for better lives as they find themselves suffocating in their various habitats (true to the Chekhovian way). According to reviewers, at times the audience may join these characters in their stifling claustrophobia, as the set and seating arrangement packs both the audience and actors together like sardines. But the outstanding performances of the actors quickly steals back the audience’s attention -- even as the characters descend ever deeper into their own souls. The consensus is, Baker and Gold have produced a fresh and bracing piece of work about the recurring dilemmas of the human condition, straight from the master artist, Chekhov himself. Continue on below to see what the critics are saying.
‘Uncle Vanya’ By Anton Chekhov. New version by Annie Baker, directed by Sam Gold. Extended thru July 22. Presented at Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street NYC. Produced in association with John Adrian Selzer. Go here for ticket information.
"Of course the characters in “Uncle Vanya” spend much of their time being spontaneously bored and grumpy. Breathing the same air as they do sometimes makes their torpid anomie a little too infectious. The production can make you feel just how oppressive it would be to be trapped in a house with a handful of people who, despite their general good will, cannot stop rubbing one another’s wounds raw. Fortunately you also experience the moments of fleeting communion among the characters with a luminous intensity that few productions can match.”
"Sam Gold clearly knows what he is doing; his brilliance with an ensemble cast is already well-established. The concept of the production is fresh; Annie Baker’s adaptation is clear. But the actors are playing characters who sulk, whine, and shuffle around as if their life has lost meaning for nearly three hours, sometimes in near-darkness, alleviated only occasionally by some nice singing and guitar-playing. Chekhov’s much-vaunted comedy largely gets lost with this treatment, especially when audience members’ attention focuses increasingly not on the characters’ misery but on their own discomfort.”
“...The naturalistic, indie-film-style staging — house lights up to indicate daytime, acting by lamplight during night scenes. It may make the audience feel closer to the action; but ultimately, it robs the show of some of its subtext. Where were Yelena's unwitting overtures toward the doctor? Or the delicate display of her influence over members of the household? There's no room for subtlety in this setup. Nor is there much comic relief — and that's a shame. Personally, I like a little comedy in my Chekhovian tragicomedies”
“The punishingly slow pace and the monotonous, perpetually downbeat mood miss the satire and snuff out any potential sparks. These people look and sound anemic — you wish someone would just throw them a steak. Occasionally, we get interesting insights. Dizzia’s Yelena is kinder than the usual aloof loafer. The scene in which Yelena and Sonya (Merritt Wever) discuss the latter’s bleak love life has an unexpectedly girlish warmth. You half-expect them to exchange friendship bracelets. But too often, the characters come across as merely whiny or pathetic. It’s hard to muster compassion for any of them.”
“Baker has crafted a sharp, modern-sounding text that's matched by the decidedly contemporary look of Soho Rep's production. Directed with leisurely care, albeit to sometimes-languorous extent, by Baker's frequent artistic partner Sam Gold, this "Uncle Vanya" gives audiences the chance to savor the work of a top-notch cast gloriously inhabiting Chekhov's ennui-filled characters.”
“Sam Gold’s living-room production is the most intimate and engaging exploration of Chekhov’s bleak comedy since Andre Gregory’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” more than 20 years ago...Yet the small scale of this production brings out the comedy with which many Chekhov stagings are uncomfortable.”
“The sense of living on top of another, with no room for escape, has always been central to Anton Chekhov's masterpiece Uncle Vanya, but it's never been as brilliantly conveyed as in Sam Gold's highly affecting production of this seminal work, now at Soho Rep...The effect is slightly voyeuristic at times (especially since an actor might be standing right next to you or at your feet), but also makes the audience feel intimately involved in the group's trials and tribulations.”
“Like Chekhov, playwright Annie Baker finds people deeply weird, and such sympathetic resonance makes her an ideal adapter of his plays. Baker’s new version of Uncle Vanya finds fresh pockets of rawness and disorientation in the classic, wrapped in a wholly absorbing, intimate setting by director Sam Gold and acted by a superb cast...I’ve seen quite a few revivals of Vanya in recent years, in Russian and in English, but this felt like a great new play. Isn’t that wonderfully strange?”
“...this ensemble...marvelously imbues Baker’s contemporary, while thoroughly faithful, text with a great deal of thought and delicate care. Of anything I've ever seen, this is probably the closest exemplification of what the stage version of an indie movie would resemble...For her Vanya, Baker has used a literal translation by Margarita Shalina, as well as the original Russian text. She makes the bold choice of keeping the play in that country, names and references intact, but with the dialogue translated into contemporary American English, delivered in standard American dialects by actors who are basically in street clothes (she served as costume designer, as well). The result is mixed; the text feels a bit stiff in certain spots, but in others, it truly does grasp the dissatisfaction that we all feel throughout our lives, from our disenchantment with our day-to-day activities to the heartbreak that comes with knowing that someone doesn’t love you back.”