It is said quite often that Anton Chekhov believed he was writing comedies and the great beacon of realistic method acting Konstantin Stanislavski thought he was writing tragedies. I am not alone in believing that the truth lies somewhere in between, which is especially obvious today. Having said this, Uncle Vanya is explicitly labeled a comedy by Chekhov's own subtitle, though it is a different kind of humor than one usually sees today.
This is made obvious by Target Margin Theater's current production at HERE Arts Center, where Uncle Vanya's line "realism, naturalism, whatever" becomes the core thematic statement for the show. Though I certainly agree that one needs not do the first two elements in that list to have a successful theatrical production, there was a bit too much of the last for my own taste.
One look at Laura Jellinek's set, consisting of a strip of parquet flooring, a stuffed bear, and the suggestions of a wall on either side, and you will know that realism is not the goal here. The overall material aesthetic of the production is that of purposefully random montage. In seeking to go against the authentic period costumes sometimes preferred for Chekhov, costume designer Annie Simon provides an odd mix of outfits, from pajamas with fur details to whimsical hats and cartoonishly large puffed sleeves.
Though these costumes go along with a great deal of the line delivery, both come off as working a bit too hard to separate themselves from realistic Chekhov. The concept behind this is perfectly sound: the characters in Uncle Vanya, and indeed in a great deal of Chekhov, are bored. The comedy often comes from their absurd lack of action, as it does in this play.
Though I don't think it's productive to say one firm "yay" or "nay" to realism/naturalism in Chekhovian acting, I was excited to see a postmodern take on this play. The problem lies in the fact that these characters are so verbosely self-aware that the actor has to strike just the right relationship to their character to create a new layer of distance. Instead of wondering about their own boredom, the actors too often seemed to be bored. There were some wonderful moments where the irony shone through, and those were by far the funniest.
There is one particular instance where the characters all break out of their direct delivery and stilted speech and simply scream and growl. This is very funny, not only because it's different, but also because that is what so many Chekhov characters want to do when they say things like "To Moscow" or "I am bored" or "I am the Seagull. No that's not right."
This is not to say that the performances are not strong. They are. But it is David Herskovits's direction that fails to bring out a strong unity in the tone. There are some overall themes, such as the sound effects of wild animals that pop up throughout, highlighting the animalistic qualities of the characters. However, there are also large stylistic changes through the acts that just seem to be thrown in to be different. For example, the miming of props is eventually replaced with real props, then the two are sort of mixed. There is also an actress who gains age make-up in the middle of the show.
Having said this, I applaud Target Margin's new take on an old classic. Their fresh approach to The Tempest last year was one of my favorite shows, and I'm pushing on their choices because the show was good, but I believe it could have been fantastic. When it comes to "whatever," one has to walk the line between expressing ennui and producing it in the audience. This Uncle Vanya leans towards the later in the beginning, but once it gets into the groove it finds a better balance.