"Sorry, I'll sneak in," a man murmured as he sidled past attendees at the Lincoln Center Festival premiere of "Uncle Vanya" Saturday night.
The man was Andrew Upton, his adaptation of Chekhov's seminal work in motion just eight rows ahead of him. From his unassuming air, you'd never guess he was half of Australia's most powerful theater couple, guiding the artistic direction of the Sydney Theatre Company. The other half, Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett, was commanding the stage, forming the perfect counterpoint to Upton's self-effacement: As the famously mesmerizing Yelena in "Vanya," Blanchett was a long way from blending into the crowd.
Not for lack of trying, though. On more than one occasion, Blanchett's Yelena makes (lazy) attempts to pass from sight -- languishing on the floor, disappearing under a blanket, her efforts only make her stick out more awkwardly.
Blanchett plays the dangerously bright light in the otherwise dreary lives of a Russian family and their doctor, Astrov, who makes daily visits to be around her. Uncle Vanya -- whose bitterness with the world has only sharpened his love for Yelena -- runs an estate alongside his niece, Sonya. But life and work grind to a halt when Yelena arrives with her husband -- an aging, ill professor, and Sonya's father.
Chekhov's play has been a staple on the stage since its premiere in 1898, with theater's biggest names -- from Sir Laurence Olivier to Peter O'Toole -- staking their claims. This year alone has seen three major productions of "Vanya." Most memorable was Annie Baker and Sam Gold's intensely intimate Soho Rep staging, which captured the play's starkness brilliantly, and delivered a punch to the gut that this version did not. But "Vanya"'s inactive plot continues to pose a tempting challenge to directors: do me differently.
This one tackles the challenge physically. Director Tamas Ascher's fresh staging is like witnessing a long, comically tragic dance. The characters fall through doors, embrace and claw at one another, exercising theater's conventions of stage movement vigorously.
Blanchett is the most skilled at fumbling with ease, toeing the delicate line between comedy and tragedy with an awkwardness you'd never expect from the stately actress. The result is a performance reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn's in "The Philadelphia Story." As Vanya exclaims to Yelena, "you've got mermaid blood in you!", Jimmy Stewart's rapturous speech, calling Hepburn a "marvelous, distant queen" isn't far from mind. Both satisfied on her pedestal and desperately uneasy with it, Yelena can't quite figure out where to exist in the world.
For her part, Blanchett makes this struggle as physical as it is mental. Even her words seem to palpably move, a trick she exercises most expertly when she's had a bit to drink. As she throws back shots of vodka -- which she does quite often here -- her words are both slurred and fluid. There's a naturalness to how Blanchett trips over her own words, and everyone around her.
As for everyone, the acting here can border on overly theatrical for Chekhov's economical use of language. While Vanya and Sonya, played by Richard Roxburgh and Hayley McElhinney, are, at their best, heartbreaking, Hugo Weaving's Astrov is at times too suave for his eccentric character's own good.
Blanchett, who is 43, plays the role of a 27-year-old character in the original text. The question of age isn't addressed, but the difference is telling. For one, at 47, Vanya's love for Yelena doesn't seem quite as impossible in this production. In fact, there's not much separating how clumsily Yelena rejects Vanya from how clumsily she embraces the doctor. The sad implication here being: the prospect of closeness in either case is equally absurd.
"Uncle Vanya" is playing at New York's City Center through July 28. Go here for more information.
WATCH the trailer for "Uncle Vanya":
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