Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Uncle Vanya"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark

"Uncle Vanya"

by Anton Chekhov
With a New Adaptation and Directed by Robert Kropf

Lighting Design by Karim Badwan
Assistant Lighting Designer Gary Slutskiy
Sound Design by Ryan Anderson
Production Manager/Stage Manager Victoria Cody

Uncle Vanya...............Justin Campbell
Dr. Astrov...................Robert Kropf
Yelena......................Stacy Fischer
Sonya......................Kristin Potter
The Professor...Mark Del Castillo-Morante

It feels like it's still "The Dead of Winter" here in Boston --- those three days between the Solstice and Xmas when the sun pauses in its headlong flight it destruction and, at its lowest point in the year begins its tentative climb toward the glories of spring. It feels like the dead of winter in theater, with expensive theater (even Good expensive theatre out in Beverly MA) suddenly starving to death --- but that is not so. Sharing the same lobby-space at the Boston Center for the Arts, two brand new companies --- despite freezing temperatures and hesitant audiences --- have planted their seeds and in hopes of better times to come are giving Boston unforgettable theater. I spoke of one yesterday. Today I must speak of an achingly human production of "Uncle Vanya" that the new Boston Art Theatre gave us, for donations-only. Because of these two stunning theatrical experiences, I once again believe in spring.

Robert Kropf took an artist's scalpel to Chekhov's classic, then directed his cast to make every character and every second of their on-stage lives throb with contemporary human passions. Gone is any feeling of waxworks-recreation of a hundred-year-old warhorse; costumes are vaguely Russian but contemporary --- as is the language, stitched together from three translations made at wildly different times. What is most immediate here, though, is the unflinching honesty with which everyone plays out this end-of-dreams merry-go-round confrontation with bad choices and wasted lives. Thus brought ringingly up to date, everything old is new again.

The play begins with Justin Campbell as Vanya lounging indifferently on the family farm he's spent his life managing, as he slowly sips from a long-neck bottle of vodka. His older brother, who had spent the farm's profits to lecture and write about art (Mark Del Castillo-Morante), walks by. He has retired to the family's country estate, sunken into hypochondriac egocentrism. Not even his much younger wife (Stacy Fischer) --- his third? --- despite her devoted yet cooling love, can prick his interest in life.

Vanya's joined by the local doctor (played by Kropf himself), whose passion for preservation of the old-growth forest is nearly as depleted as the forest is. He and Vanya --- both of whom in their separate ways, harbor a smoldering lust for The Professor's wife --- engage in a lengthy, lyrical dialogue --- or is it a set of matching monologues: variations on frustration and boredom, laced with drink and with sparks of sardonic fun.

The final entrance is of Vanya's spinster sister (Kristin Potter) --- whose country plainness rarely hides her frustrated love of Dr. Astrov himself.

By play's end every mismatched one of these "crushes" will be leaped-at, shots will be fired in fury, hopes spattered like the petals of winter roses, and little will change ... except awareness. Sometimes, "not-knowing is better."

At bottom, it is not the frustration, boredom and despair that made Chekhov's people come alive, again and again on the world's stages for the last hundred years, but their determination, dashed or not, to live at least something of their unquenchable dreams. Perhaps no one wins, and a grave does indeed wait for us all --- but even seen through sardonically clear eyes, that unhappy truth will never make passions die.

For this stirring production the simple Black Box at the BCA fills with life. The five actors perform lightning scene-changes ---one of them mirroring the crescendo of the play's emotional climax --- with no stage-hand help. Karim Badwan's shadowy lights match moods, and briefly split the sky with lightning.

And there is music. These over-emotional Russians only enjoy life, fully and truly, while singing, or dancing, or playing or listening to music. Ryan Anderson's sound design allows music, again and again, to underscore or even to dominate scenes briefly. And this is logical because, throughout, there is a musical interplay in the words themselves. Every word, every gesture, every pause is drenched in honest, human emotion until "Finita La Comedia" --- till the comedy ends.

This is a young company of experienced Equity professionals, all of whom have worked here before, giving Boston a Project Code Presentation--- with the help of friends and relatives --- For Free. I could not give them but a fragment of what their work is worth. I only hope, when you see the show, their donation-urn will overflow with a fulfilled, appreciative audience's generosity. And so I cry
"Welcome, Boston Art Theatre; welcome home, to Boston!"

"Uncle Vanya" (8 - 24 January)
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 233-1876

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide