Partway through David Herskovits’s new production of Uncle Vanya (now playing at Here), a performer walks around, ring-girl style, with a placard that reads “Time Passes”—reducing the terrible essence of Chekhov’s dramaturgy to a sight gag. This bit of cutesiness points to a question that nags you throughout the piece: Is the ensemble laughing at poor old Anton and his play? And if so, why?
If you remember Uncle Vanya’s plot, you also know the clichés that have built up around it. The play is about the ripples caused by the disruptive arrival of a pompous professor and his beautiful young wife on a remote country estate. Shaken out of their usual routines, Vanya (Greig Sargeant) and Sonya (Susan Hyon), the estate’s caretakers, must confront the smallness of their lives and the depredations of fleeting time. Making a rough situation worse, both are helplessly in love with un-reciprocating objects: Vanya loves Helena (Rebecca Hart), the professor’s comely spouse; Sonya loves the melancholic local Doctor Astrov (Edward O’Blenis)—who also desires Helena. Needless to say, in the wrong hands this material leads to much Soulful Slavic Sighing.
Herskovits ticks off the boxes on the Chekhov checklist: A little prop samovar floats by; tinkling music highlights the play’s frequent references to time and the departures of various characters. To remind us that the play takes place in Russia, actors occasionally adopt Boris-and-Natasha accents (along with other funny voices). To remind us that Russia is cold—or perhaps that the characters are regressing to primitive states—the costumes are edged with fur. Performers hold conversations with absent servants. The requisite number of roles are cross-cast: The professor is played by a woman; his mother by a man. The elderly Nanny N starts out young but gets bent over by age by the end. The theatrical dividends of the rearranging aren’t large (unless you’re the sort of easily riled spectator who still gets startled by this kind of mixing and matching). Since the production isn’t really interested in seriously investigating gender, or social class, or time, the payoff is basically a few questionable laughs.
All this is fair game, of course, but it’s more than a little stale—a bit like deliberately doing Shakespeare in plummy Anglo tones and pumpkin pants. Mocking the theatrical clichés onstage has become a bit of a cliché itself. But the bigger problem here is that this goofing doesn’t reveal much about the play (or anything else) that merits the sustained experience of a full production.
At first, it looks as though there might be a strong directorial idea behind the messing around. The deadpan performances and rapid-fire, uninflected delivery suggest that Target Margin’s actors are as disenchanted by mundane theatrical realities as Chekhov’s bored rural types are by the mud and ennui of the Russian sticks. Or, as the performers cue sound effects themselves to bring on a storm, or bungle their lines at moments of heightened feeling, maybe they’re trying to suggest that Chekhov’s plays are so familiar to us now that all they can do is go through the predictable motions—indicating the emotional realities because more dimensional expression would be prevented by our expectations.
But these possibilities go out the window when it becomes clear that, despite the caveat that this is an adaptation, Herskovits and Co. are actually following the original play pretty closely. True, much of the exposition has been shaved away, putting us into the middle of famous scenes without some of the ligatures that stitch them together. (If you’ve ever taken an acting class, chances are you can practically mouth the words to Helena and Sonya’s late-night girl talk, anyway). A couple of the well-known speeches are delivered in rapid bullet-points, as if we’d be too bored by the complete version to really hear the whole thing.
If you know the play, though, you find that it hasn’t really been tampered with all that much: the structure, characters, and situation are still Chekhov’s; the wrenching missed connections and sudden eruptions of pent-up feeling occur in the same places they always do. Occasionally the performers throw in a decorative contemporary inflection, or an interjection like “Unfuckingbelievable,” but mostly what we get is Cliffs Notes Chekhov plus parody.
Sometimes Sargeant’s unadorned portrayal of Vanya is quite moving in its pained simplicity. O’Blenis’s Astrov captures the character’s destructive inability to take himself or others seriously—but these felicities most often occur in sections when the production is hewing closest to the source. All the tinkering ultimately comes across as half-hearted: It’s almost as if Herskovits actually wanted to do a faithful rendition of the play, but couldn’t bring himself to go through with it.
Like the titular character himself slowly realizing the full bleakness of his situation, you might become disillusioned with this Uncle Vanya when you realize all your interpretive labor has occurred in vain—there’s little reward for we spectators, either, toiling alone in obscurity.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 2, 2012