The Goodman Theatre: Uncle Vanya , Our Contemporary

Todd Rosenthal’s sublime setting which greeted the audience entering the Owen theater alerted us to what was to come.

Among the period pieces of furniture sat a 1950s-style blond wood arm chair and a chrome dinette chair. A 1920s-radio rested upon the piano and a goose-neck electric light roosted nearby.

Then came the note by play adapter Anna Baker about her goal:

To create a version that sounds to our contemporary ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions”

Clearly the visual components to Robert Falls’ production were on the same tricky page. Too often such attempts descend into hip contemporary jargon and slang and involve the disposable ephemera of the day.

Could this production actually meet the high challenge it gave for itself?

The answer is a resounding “YES” in surround sound amplification and technicolor lettering.

Mr. Falls has created a lively and sprightly Uncle Vanya which seems to liberate the play without cheapening it.

The director himself has invented stage business to help the process along. When the storm causes a loss of power the stage is plunged into total blackness and we hear voices and feet as characters struggle to find candles to light. When the electric power is restored the effect is a bright jolt. The storm also causes the ancient roof to leak and Sonya places pots on the floor to capture the drops, as an almost musical tune of water is created. The radio is turned on at inopportune times to add to the tension of a moment. Sonya and Yelena bond through a delightful girly pillow fight. The drunken night revelers – Astrov, Vanya, and Telegin – really tie one on complete with a rowdy version of the Russian standard “Dark Eyes”. Countless subtle character movements and motivations have the same dramatic inventiveness which infuse the entire “old wine bottle” of a play with the “new wine” of today.

Ana Kuzmanic’s spot-on costumes define each character at a glance and merge the “then” of custom with the ‘now’ of fashion. Serebryakov wears a simple but elegant black suit. Mother Maria sports a Joan Crawford turban. The lovely actress playing Sonya is somehow transformed into a frumpy peasant girl. Yelena’s stylish pertness and affability is announced by her clothing. Dr. Astrov is Russian tieless and easily moves from visual decorum to visual distress as he has yet another vodka. Vanya himself is given the peasant look, popularized by Andre Gregory’s Vanya on 42nd Street, eschewing Chekhov’s insistence that the character wear a ‘silk tie”; “He is an elegant, cultured man who dresses well and orders his clothing from Paris.” Chekhov thought Vanya should resemble his friend Petr Tchaikovsky. (One just wonders how this intelligent production might have handled a formally dressed Vanya.)

The casting is brilliant. Having seen Tim Hopper play a wide variety of eccentrics, seeing him enact the icon of human normality under siege was a pleasant shock. David Darlow, so wonderful as Mr. Doolittle at Remy Bumppo, manages yet another way to be wonderful as a man of certain years. He wisely avoids showing a pompous and fraudulent professor, instead revealing the man who wowed a family for many, many years. Caroline Neff’s s performance simply defines Sophia Alexandrovna for all time. There is just nothing another actress might bring to the role. Kristen Bush’s Yelena is not too hot, not too cool; she is just right, as conceived and executed. Marton Csokas’ Dr. Astrov is magnificent – wise, worldly, passionate, and as unregenerate a drunk and womanizer as you are apt to see on stage. Any family would miss his presence. Marina the nanny, as played so warmly and earthily by Mary Ann Thebus, provides the love and sense so lacking in the other relationships.

Mr. Falls’ production ends with a stunning image. Sonya, the niece, cradles and comforts her weeping uncle – a Pieta for a fractured family in a broken world.

There couldn’t be a better gift from Mr. Falls to celebrate his thirty years at the Goodman. Thank you very much.

 

 

 

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