nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
December 4, 2008
You don't need me to tell you that Uncle Vanya is a great play. But what you might need me for is to mention how incredibly difficult a task it is to reinvigorate a classic and make it seem alive for us in the here and now. We keep trying to tell ourselves that it's enough to just do the plays as they were written, in productions that look very much like their originals might have. We insist that they will stand the test of time and feel alive and new, even if we have not changed the external presentation.
The Space Ensemble's new production (and new translation) of Uncle Vanya spurred me to ask this question because it is the first time I've seen this play in New York, and it was a rare opportunity to see a classic on an indie theatre stage. Unfortunately, though—new translation and all—the production never really gets off the ground, and does not succeed in breathing new life into such a classic text.
Like much of Chekhov's work, the plot is simple and the characters are rich. The play takes place as an old professor and his stunning young new wife Elena retire to a country estate left by the professor's first wife. What they find there is the professor's brother-in-law and the manager of the estate, Uncle Vanya, who is none too pleased with his life. As one can imagine, throwing a gorgeous but off-the-market woman into the mix (Elena), is not a welcome point of stress for the already brooding Vanya, who spends most of the play lusting after her to no avail. Also at the estate is Sonya, the professor's daughter by his first wife, and the country doctor, Astrov, who is a frequent visitor.
As the play unfolds we learn more and more about these rich characters as we delve into the inner depths of their psyches. Our knowledge of them, and their knowledge of each other, grows and grows as the tiny plot points explode the characters. Astrov and Vanya lust after Elena, while Sonya's love for Astrov is sadly unrequited, all set against the backdrop of an old professor who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life—and the estate.
Director John Knauss, despite a sweeping ambition, does not get the production past an emotional halfway point. The set and tone of the play merely hint at Chekhovian realism, rather than truly embracing it. Without the budget to present these "scenes from country life," a director is charged with the task of justifying Chekhovian realism in a spare environment. It is a challenging task, but not out of the realm of possibility. Here, Knauss never makes that justification, and instead tries to make the realism work, which unfortunately feels like trying to pound a round peg into a square hole.
Moti Margolin's Vanya is wonderfully animated and appropriately brooding, but when all is said and done, this Vanya lacks depth and seems more of a caricature of himself rather than a disturbingly complex individual. The two standout performances are Claire Siebers's lovely and vulnerable Sonya, and Jared Houseman's strong and confident Astrov. Watching these two talented actors work with this classic text is a pleasure and provides the high points of the evening.
In the end, the production seems very much like a micro version of what the original production of this play might have been like. But rather than standing the test of time, it feels as if it belongs in a museum rather than living on the streets of New York at the dawn of 2009. Maybe it's not enough now, in our time, to attempt anything less than a re-imagination of these classic texts to give them the opportunity to connect with a contemporary audience. Maybe we must now, more than ever, find a way in this cultural environment, to be bold and fresh, even with our oldest texts.