When he takes on Anton Chekhov’s plays, the master Russian director Lev Dodin doesn’t worry about unearthing new aspects of the beloved dramatist. After all, the author left only a handful of full-length dramas when he died in 1904, and Russian stagings are as common as birch trees in the forest. “The important thing is not to set your heart on making new discoveries,” he tells the Voice through a translator, “but to hope to God that you and your actors might be able to measure up to his scale of thoughts and emotions.”
New York audiences can see the results starting April 7, when Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre production of Uncle Vanya opens at BAM’s Harvey Theater for five performances. Dodin, who turned 65 last May, has served as the Maly’s artistic director since 1983, and he culled the cast from the St. Petersburg theater’s acclaimed resident company of 56 actors. Most are his former students from the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy, and many have worked together for decades to create the Maly’s permanent repertory of 17 plays—which also includes Dostoyevsky, Platonov, Abramov, and other 20th-century authors. At the company’s home, each of those productions is performed at least twice a month in rotation, usually to full houses. The oldest show premiered 25 years ago. Uncle Vanya first opened in 2003.
Dodin typically rehearses a new project with the company during the day—taking up to two years to complete it—while the same actors perform the older works for the public at night. “We always have something on,” says Dodin, “and it does a world of good to the actors, struggling with new parts [in rehearsal], to know that at 7 p.m. they will go onstage to do a show they definitely know how to do.”
Uncle Vanya, an 1899 tragicomedy set on the country estate of a prominent professor, was completed in “a relatively short and very happy rehearsal period” of just six months. On one hand, Dodin’s production is grounded in earthy Russian ensemble acting cultivated over so many years. But his staging also gestures to loftier visions: Three haystacks hang in the air over the characters’ heads. (In her famously spiritual final monologue, the professor’s daughter, Sonya, speaks of a “sky encrusted with diamonds.”) Set designer David Borovsky, a close collaborator and friend who died in 2006, placed them there, sharing the stage with only a simple wooden pavilion, after the director told him he didn’t want “any theatricality” in the visual composition. “We both wanted the space to breathe,” Dodin says, “to convey the ringing purity of the change of seasons.”
“For me, Uncle Vanya is the most harmonious and most beautiful Chekhov play,” the director says. “It’s the work of a mature master.”
Dodin has won global recognition for fostering exquisite ensemble work, but in signature productions like Brothers and Sisters (1985), he also became known for nuanced contemplations of Russian history and bold, physically charged theatricality. Although a few major works have toured to America previously, Dodin’s most celebrated—a nine-hour version of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, performed in one day with a cast and crew of 70—has never been seen here, even though it remains a staple of the Maly’s repertory and a landmark of 20th-century theater. Uncle Vanya is a far more modest staging, but rich in spirit. As Dodin observes, “Chekhov can be anything—painful, frivolous, cruel, ruthless, and loving—but not boring.”