Maly Drama Theatre – Theatre of Europe’s
Uncle Vanya- Scenes from village life in four acts
By: Anton Chekhov
Directed by: Lev Dodin
Presented in Association with David Eden Productions Ltd.
At Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Courtyard Theatre
Complex Subtlety and Amazing Performances make Russian Uncle Vanya a must-see.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre concludes their 2009/2010 World’s Stage Series with Maly Drama Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya, which was first performed in St. Petersburg in celebration of Anton Chekhov’s 150th birthday. Uncle Vanya has been done time and time again in Chicago and around the world. I have seen the play done twice, both times wonderfully; however, it is a rare opportunity to see a piece of Chekhov performed in the original Russian. Furthermore, Maly Drama Theatre is a world-renowned theatre comprised of artists with immense talent: It is one of only three theatres to have been given the status, Theatre of Europe. The acting ensemble is so honest and precise that they are able to fully communicate every moment to the audience even though they are speaking in Russian. This is a must-see production for Chekhov enthusiasts, for those who want to give Chekhov a second chance, or for those who just plain love theatre.
For those who are new to the story, the play takes place on the estate of Professor Serebriakov, who has just returned with his young second wife Elena. Upon their arrival, they disrupt the daily routine of the estate which is run by Serebriakov’s daughter Sonia and his brother-in-law Voinitskiy Ivan (Vanya). Vanya and Astrov, a local doctor, fall in love with Elena, while Sonia pines over Astrov from afar. Failed lives, uncertain futures, and frustration overwhelm the inhabitants of the estate forcing them into a series of confrontations. Although on paper not a whole lot happens, there is plenty going on beneath the text.
Director, Lev Dodin, has carefully choreographed these scenes into blocking that can only be described as a dance (I especially applaud the seamless transitions between acts, had I not known I would assume it was just a continuation of the scene.). The pacing is very slow, but every movement and pause is so calculated that scenes never drag. The actors and director are not afraid of pauses. Some of the most wonderful moments are the silent spaces which seem to stretch forever, but are laced with an undercurrent of tension. The confrontations and fights rarely turn into shouting matches and are surprisingly calm, including when Vanya attempts to murder Serebriakov. There are also instances where certain characters that you would not normally see in a scene are there, which add unexpected tension and depth to certain moments (not to spoil anything, but especially towards the end of act four).
All of the performances are world-class, well-rounded, restrained, complex, and alive. It is realism at its finest. I do want to make special note of Igor Ivanov, who plays Professor Serebriakov, and Ksenia Rappoport, who plays Elena. In previous productions their relationship is played as black and white. He is the older man who somehow married the beautiful young wife; now she hates him and he is just a grumpy old curmudgeon. However, they exude beautiful tenderness and loving in the beginning of act two, and Serebriakov even shows warmth and understanding upon discovering her indiscretions at the end. It shows that in spite of their problems that there is something there that keeps them together. I also want to mention Vanya, played by Sergei Kruishev, who is more lovable than pitiful, which made me feel even worse for his plight. Rather than feeling sorry for him, you feel sorry with him because he is so relatable. I attribute the amazing acting to Dodin’s direction and his philosophy of acting being a “way of life.” He often continues to rehearse with actors well into the run of a production so that it can continue to develop and grow. The dedication on both ends is visible and pays of massive dividends.
Another thing that is important to note is the brilliance of the set design. Set designer, David Borovsky, has designed a set that is simple and bare; a series of wooden walls and floor that comprise a single room. In this room the space is simply defined by chairs and tables, with the only escape to the outside being a pair of glass doors. Above the stage linger three giant haystacks that descend upon the completion of the play, in my opinion a wonderful final image indicating the return to work on the estate. Throughout the entire production it created a feeling of bleakness and being trapped, as if those glass doors were the only escape to the outside world. It shows how great set design does not always mean great spectacle.
Although I highly recommend this production, it is one that will definitely not be for everyone. The play is rather long (clocking it at just over three hours) and consists of long stretches of dialogue. Furthermore, the dialogue is all in Russian with supertitles projected in annotated format above the stage, so if you do not enjoy subtitles in a movie you probably will not enjoy this. If you are on a tight budget as well, tickets run $65-$75 which may feel a bit pricey. However, if you are not deterred by these facts, go see this show because it is only here for five performances. It will be closing on Sunday March 21. Do not miss out on this rare opportunity because it is well worth the time and money and not something you are going to see in Chicago very often.
At The Courtyard Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand Ave, Tickets $65-$75, www.chicagoshakes.com, Wednesday Mar17 – Saturday March 20 at 7:30 PM and Sunday March 21 at 2:00 PM, running time is 3 hours 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Thru March 21, 2010.