“Uncle Vanya” at the Kennedy Center
You’re not likely to hear The Three Stooges and Anton Chekhov mentioned in the same conversation. Yet I found myself thinking of Curly and Moe, and Laurel and Hardy, for that matter, and maybe even Lucille Ball at odd moments during the Sidney Theatre Company’s electric, very energetic, and yes, very funny, production of “Uncle Vanya” at the Kennedy Center.
Chekhov, the Russian master of the short story and theater, reportedly insisted that his plays were comedies of a kind. Director Tamas Ascher and his Sidney Theater ensemble cast certainly found a lot of rough and tumble, physical and sly comedy in “Uncle Vanya”, without diluting what is basically a comic tragedy. You laugh, you cry, you watch the twilight preceding the night.
This production—with a stellar cast headed by but not dominated by Oscar-winning movie actress Cate Blanchett, who runs the company with husband Andrew Upton, noted for his adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard”—is an electric, combustible staging, always entertaining to watch for its physicality, for its portrait of a group of people in frustrated mourning for the missed opportunities of their lives.
If there is a slight tic in this production, it’s probably the setting. Ascher has decided to put Chekhov’s 19th-century Russians-on-the-country-estate into Soviet times, a move that’s not particularly comfortable if you pay too much attention to it. These people—so enmeshed in their beat of their personal but also universal soul—wouldn’t have lasted a weekend under Stalin, the wrecker of the individual soul on a grand scale. You hear a car horn hiccupping, the sound of a motor, and some of the clothing could be modern, if threadbare, especially Yelenda’s two little clingy somethings, basic hunger-inducing outfits in white and red, ruled over by teased white-blond curls.
Basically, you know where you are: Chekhov country, which is to say the denizens and residents of a floundering estate losing their grip on the property and land, barely getting by, yearning for the past and love and success never found. In short, there’s a quasi-intellectual (a pompous professor in theis case), a hopeful young person, a frustrated middle-aged romantic, a cynic of sorts, and a glamorous, diva-like woman around whom the twilight sun of the setting and every one in it moves, plus the odd relative, hanger-on, old man who remembers back in the day.
In Chekhov’s plays—which are really about people’s inability to adjust to social and economic changes like the end of serfdom, the rise of the middle class and the struggle to keep up old habits and appearances—the emphasis shifts and moves around like a game of sad tag. The craziest, most tortured, and erratic spokesman of the frustrations of change and a sudden clarity of vision is Vanya, who for years has kept up the estate for the absentee landlord—the puffed up clueless Serebyakov, a man whom he admired only to find him an empty suit.
The professor has arrived at the shabby estate with his stunning, much younger wife Yelena (Blanchett), who manages to disturb the numbing routine of the estate. Like a witch high on speed, she wreaks havoc among the residents: Vanya realizes he’ll never have her, the good Doctor develops an almost uncontrollable lust/love for her, and even the practical Sonya finds a new BFF in the jittery diva that’s been placed in their midst. On top of that the professor has plans for the estate, which he can’t afford to hang on to.
Money, feverish promise of sex, romance and love, the impending loss of status and property, shifting relationships and a terrible longing for the past—these are all familiar Chekhov tropes. Usually, they’re played out an atmosphere of waiting, a kind of poetic languor interrupted by bursts of high drama, the revelation of secrets and even a gunshot (“The Seagull).
There’s a gunshot in “Uncle Vanya” too, but it’s one of the more splasticky moments in the play when Vanya attempts to shoot the professor because he has Yelena, because “he’s added nothing to nothing,” intellectually. Like Oliver Hardy, he misses in three tries. Richard Roxburgh as Vanya is a study in epic frustration, exasperation, he flounders like a fish, his arms and hands are prayers, they’re moving around in electric supplication.
In the midst of all this Yelena is like a moth, who recognizes that every one wants to touch her, it’s essentially all she’s got to offer. She even touches herself as if to guard against some imagined winter storm. She fends off the doctor, she puts off Vanya and doles out her affections in small bursts, so as not to excite a fever. When her husband demands a kiss, she swoops in like a mother bird feeding her chick a worm.
It’s a feverish performance, all tangled up in her thin, elongated body which is never still, its as if she were constantly eying the rooms of the estate for escape hatches.
Haley McElhinney as Sonya sports a broad Aussie accent, but somehow it doesn’t matter—her performance is so natural, so true and strong, that she could speak in another language altogether and still be understood.
In the end, people leave, people stay, as if the soul of the once-great estate had evaporated.
This “Uncle Vanya”completes the set for this writer, in the sense that I can now say I’ve seen the Chekhov plays in versions that are immensely satisfying. If Upton’s and Ascher’s version is a stylistic departure in terms of physicality, energy and the spice of comedy, it brings a freshness to Chekhov, a new, or rather additional way of experiencing the plays. The production can stand beside my particular favorites: The Studio Theater’s and Joy Zinoman’s elegiac version of “The Three Sisters”, along with Zelda Fichandler’s classic production of the same play; Zinoman again with the rarely seen “Ivanov”, which opened the Studio’s new space; the David Mamet translation of “The Cherry Orchard” at Round House Theater and last, but not least, the iconoclastic director Peter Sellars’ just-about-perfect version of “A Seagull”, which was the late Colleen Dewhurst’s shining moment as the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and featured Kevin Spacey, Kelly McGillis and Paul Winfield in an outstanding cast at the time when the Kennedy Center was attempting to create a national theater.