Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Uncle Vanya"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Larry Stark

"Uncle Vanya"

by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Craig Lewis

Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques

Set Design & Scenic Painting by Nathan Lee
Costume Design by Toni B. Elliott
Sound Design by Emily Ledger
Lighting Design by Danielle Fauteux Jacques
Paint Crew Lisa Kramer, Steve Kramer, Darrell Ginese
Gallery Vincent Ularich
Box Office/House Managers Carol Bortman, Eli Bortman, Ida Rudolph
Assistant Stage Manager Mike Handelman
Stage Manager Erica Paige Brown


Astrov.................Ronald Lacey
Nanny.................Ann Carpenter
Vanya....................John Kuntz
Professor Serebriakov....Bill Salem
Telegin..............Kevin Fennessy
Sonya..............Erin Eva Butcher
Elena...........Marissa Rae Roberts
Maria................Ann Marie Shea
Workman..............Mike Handleman

A Review by Larry Stark

As 2012 opens, several reviewers may say you must see John Kuntz's "Uncle Vanya"; I agree you must take a #111 bus from Haymarket for the ten-minute ride across the Tobin Bridge (Tell the driver you must get off at The Police Station, and if he asks "You mean Chelsea Courthouse?" you'll have one who knows the route.) --- to see Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques' unusual production of Chekhov's play done by her Apollinaire Theatre Company's achingly interactive, thoroughly human cast.

Take for instance Mike Handleman playing a house-servant, with no lines to speak of. He turns up in several scenes, fetching things, but mostly learning to play a guitar. But when the farm's overseer comes in, the guilty snap with which he jumps up and bows, doffing his cap, defines not only him but an entire society. And throughout the play Ann Carpenter's Nanny, who has spent a lifetime comforting distraught children, sits and knits and demonstrates life going on. And there's Kevin Fennessy's Telegin, whose family years before sold the farm, complaining with wounded dignity that he dines with the owners every night, and yet they can't even get his name right! While Ann Marie Shea as Vanya's mother buries her mind in books avoiding life. These "peasants" personify the very land itself.

It's a hardscrabble farm maintained for twenty years by Vanya so he can support his brother, a professor of art history and aesthetics with no real income of his own. It's this brother, Serebriakov, who only visits by whim demanding attention, who sets off the action. As played by Bill Salem, he is a dyspeptic hypochondriac whose enormous ego never even acknowledges the feelings or even existence of anyone else, except as it serves himself. Someone has described him as a mere blowhard, but here he's even worse than that: a black hole of ego sucking the life out of everyone for a career that has been a sham.

His young second-wife Elena (Marissa Rae Roberts), a drop-dead beauty with blonde ringlets and subtly smokey eyes, also exerts an incendiary influence. Reduced to little more than a berated body-servant, she revels in her attractiveness to other men, yet never accepts their blatant offers of assignation.

For total contrast there is Erin Eva Butcher's Sonya, Serebriakov's daughter, who knows herself to be plain yet loves and yearns to be loved. When the two young women meet early in Act One, their smiles are very different. Elena's shows she has always known herself a beauty, the center of attention. Sonya's has the internalized radiance of innocent sincerity. Sonya has stayed on helping her uncle run the farm, yet her secret love cannot stay hidden long.

Her love-object is a sort of self-hating like-a-look for Anton Chekhov, M.D.; Ronald Lacey as Dr. Astrov begins the play seated somewhat tentatively on a swing, thinking dark thoughts and waiting for his next vodka. He visits every day --- to catch glimpses of the lovely Elena --- shares Vanya's 40-something mid-life crisis, and like other Chekhov characters still mouths the dregs of a hope that, some time in the future, life will be worth living. He can be ecstatically drunk, philosophically sincere about his project to re-introduce old-growth forests to the area, yet at bottom aware that life is short and he is unfulfilled and unhappy. It is a huge part admirably played.

Of course, at the center of everything is Astrov's counterpart, Vanya himself. As John Kuntz plays him, at 47 he looks back on an entire life that's been a great waste of everybody's time. As he fumes against his fate, still wearing the tweeds of a farmer, his temples and beard are touched with white, and his rages can find nothing that will change anything. When he finally explodes into pistol-shots and the possibility of suicide only a hollow feeling of filial loyalty, and of keeping on keeping on, ends the play.

The acting everywhere is magnificent, with real people stumbling and stepping on one another, reacting out of deep character --- in other words a story spinning out its engrossing reality --- as they always are in an Apollinaire production. But the director has added one magnificent twist that compounds its sincerity. Only the first act here is played on a stage with an audience mased on the other side of a wall, separate, watching. When it ends that audience is escorted to the floor below, where in a large room hung with undistinguished paintings the profesor may have chosen, he demonstrates his indifferent self-love and petty cruelties. Then, after a short break, action and audience are brought into another big room wherein the professor pompously proposes to sell their farm and invest in his own future security, and all hell breaks loose.

In these last three scenes the audience is more or less pasted to the walls, watching life take place exactly in their midst. The effect is such that, when characters dash out through an open door, they may still be seen dashing about in the hallway.

And then, at last, the scene shifts still again into the farm's cramped, dusty office, where Sonya and her uncle once more take up the account-books, re-fill the ink-well, and attempt to go on with their suddenly emptied lives.

This is one of the very best plays of this very good year, and probably the most moving "Vanya" I have ever seen. I am so glad that Boston's major reviewers were compelled to make that ten-minute trip across the river --- perhaps just to see the play's famous star --- to discover the incredible richness of theatrical miracles that the Apollinaire Theatre Company has been bringing about, unHeralded and unGlobed, for the past dozen Golden years.

They will continue doing what they do --- but perhaps, now, the lovers of good theater ten minutes over the bridge will begin to seek them out.

===Larry Stark

29 December - 15 January (Extended till 22 January)
"Uncle Vanya"
@ Chelsea Theatre Works, 189 Winnisimmet Street, CHELSEA MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide