by Anton Chekov
Translation by Paul Schmidt
Directed by János Sászz
Featuring Thomas Derrah, Arliss Howard, and Linda Powell
American Repertory Theatre
54 Brattle St. Cambridge / (617) Phone Number

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Regular attendees at ART productions who were hoping for a sea change in the company's offerings were greeted by a set for the season's opener, "Uncle Vanya", inspired by a Russian movie unseen in this country, more suggestive of "The Lower Depths" than Anton Chekov's "Scenes of Country Life." Riccardo Hernandez's environment of the show consists of a thrust stage of planks with a low ceiling looming out to shadow a portion of the audience. The planking looks damp and during the show absorbs its share of moisture as does the cast. Everything is blotchy gray or brown and at the back of the stage stands the counter from a cheap bar complete with fluorescent lighting. The furniture for the entire show consists of a large table with chairs slightly off center downstage, a grubby mattress on the floor down right, some crates scattered about, farm equipment upstage left along with a beat up piano. A bucket is conspicuously placed to catch a drip heard in David Remedios' soundscape now and then. There's one door far up left, which serves as the only entrance. Locations and time span are not specified in the program, so someone unfamiliar with the play would have a very odd conception of its actual setting.

The lighting by Christopher Akerlind, which is very flat due to the ceiling includes several quartz floods as footlights along the front of the stage, a line of fluorosecents on the ceiling upstage, which are most effective when accompanied by thunder, and enough real candles to make one hope that Edit Szcs realistic and rather grimy costumes have been well fireproofed. There's also a bulky chandelier crowned with a lot of flood bulbs to bounce light off the ceiling. To say that this three hour production is very theatrical would be an understatement. To say that all this effort illuminates the play would be an overstatement.

The actors and certainly the text seem almost an afterthought. The words are translated from Chekov, but the scenario seems to have been done by Ionesco with some help from Sarte. Not that the ART hasn't as usual fielded a competent cast. Thomas Derrah plays the title role using all his basic skills, and might even have made Vanya sympathetic in a production where empathy with the characters was encouraged. Director János Sászz does have him try to hang himself from the chandelier and at the end of the play has Vanya stand shirtless in a shower of water under the hole he shot in the ceiling when gunning for the Professor. Otherwise the part is rather realistic. However, since the part of Ivan Petrovich's mother is omitted from this production, the intellectual part of Vanya's persona has no support.

Vanya's foil, Dr. Astrov, is played by Arliss Howard, spending the fall in residence at the ART. While he is more convincing as an alcoholic country physician than he was as Ivanov here a few years ago, he's been directed to subvert the glamour that was written into the role for Stanislavsky in the original. When Yelena the Professor's second wife, played by Linda Powell, has a brief fling with him, she seems to be giving in to boredom more than anything else. Ms. Powell, the daughter of the Secretary of State, holds her own with more experienced members of the company, even when being discovered by Vanya sprawled on the table being dry humped by Astrov. She even gets a brief tumble on the mattress before leaving for good. This ain't the Moscow Art Theatre version. Her scenes with Phoebe Jonas as Sonja, her stepdaughter are fully believable. Jonas's somewhat gauche characterization of this young woman hopelessly in love is probably the best acting job in the play, if a bit too strident at times.

This translation, originally done for the A.C.T by the late Paul Schmidt is somewhat modernized, but still retains a number of specific references to scenic details not included in this production. Various changes have been introduced however. The director has omitted the very important minor figure of the Watchman sounding his rattle outside at the end of the second and fourth acts. ászSz has also given the poor neighbor Telegin, played by Remo Airaldi for the first half of the run, and Benjamin Evett for the second, a ragged Army uniform and a glockenspiel instead of a guitar, as if the audience needs help realizing his position as the Fool. Will LeBow as Prof. Serebriakov spends most of the play in a modern wheelchair, perhaps so Vanya can dump him out of it, but strides off into the sunset at the end, after throwing a glass of vodka in Astrov's face.

The rest of the cast consists of three barflys and the bartender, who fortunately aren't always there, a young Black deaf , Elbert Joseph as Yefim the servant, and last year's IRNE Best Supporting Actress, Karen MacDonald, as Marina, the nursemaid, feeding everyone soup or tea or vodka as needed. The ensemble is quite professional throughout, even when the action seems arbitrary. The director has mentioned that he wanted a studio theatre feel to the show, and indeed, the production resembles what the ART Institute students do in their basement, usually in shorter doses. Presenting "Uncle Vanya" with all its psychological and semi-autobiographical baggage is always a challenge, but this version has deconstructed "scenes from country life" into scenes from an imaginary drama full of moments. At the end of a long evening then, the real climax is when everything finally stops and Marina serves dumplings. Chekov deserves better.

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