The new version of Uncle Vanya, by Liisa Repo-Martell, directed by Crow’s Artistic Director, Chris Abraham works very well. I loved it.
Chekhov can be a challenge, possibly because he’s often put on such a high pedestal, his name spoken in hushed tones. He defies definition, straddling genre boundaries in ways to confound & confuse, comedy embedded in situations fraught with tragic possibilities. I think it’s a mistake to hold him in so much awe as to lose your way or lose your nerve.
But Repo-Martell and Abraham are fearless, casting the show in a way that feels totally natural for the Toronto of 2022, less like the 1899 classic from Russian literature and more like a modern romantic comedy with an atmospheric set design to suggest the period. Yes there’s a samovar (reminding me of the agonies decades ago, trying to find one for a student production). Yes we hear the horses that pull a carriage. It’s wonderfully suggestive, presented with the intimate Guloien Theatre audience (perhaps 120? not sure) completely surrounding the action.
One natural entry point with this play is in its echoes of the pandemic, as we watch the irritation grow in a crowded house. Deja vu! We see the comedy, we’re ready to laugh, as we watch everyone coping in different ways using various coping strategies. Some of them are cheerful, some are grouchy & grumpy. I think there’s probably somebody you’ll look at onstage, seeing yourself.
Repo-Martell & Abraham encourage a feminist reading of Chekhov’s text: or at least they refused to allow the sexist / misogynistic language of several characters to disbalance the show’s interpretation. Maybe my age is showing but I recall productions where the contrasting pair of Yelena (beautiful & living a life of bored luxury) and Sonya (plain & hard-working) underline some sort of imagined political or moral symbolism by the playwright. Yes we do hear judgments hurled at Yelena by other characters. But perhaps the text has been waiting for interpreters who would see past the surface, showing the challenges faced by each of these young women. The magical scene between Yelena (Shannon Taylor) and Sonya (Bahia Watson) is one of the highlights of the show.
And of course there’s the testosterone in the script, so many men both young & old responding often in the most predictable ways to the women around them. Tom Rooney as Vanya is turned loose, muttering softly for much of the show but gradually building momentum as his anger grows making for some fiercely dark moments This powerfully intimate space often left me unsure where to look on a stage populated with terrific performances: but Rooney was truly remarkable, as I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Ali Kazmi gives us a fully fleshed out incarnation of Astrov, who is at the heart of the play as both the tempter (of both young women) and the tempted (between his romantic aspirations and his inability to resist vodka), the idealistic young doctor who dreams of the future.
Kazmi and Rooney are great fun together, especially when they begin to sing & dance, aided and abetted by the work of Anand Rajaram (as Telegin) on guitar.
The best comedies must sometimes be serious and Uncle Vanya is no exception. Chekhov poses the difficult genre questions (tragedy or comedy?) alongside the difficult life questions (what is happiness and how do I find it?). After getting tangled up in the smallest trivia of life, we stumble upon depths & horrors. Money questions, romantic questions, and the very purpose of a life all jostle for their place before us.
And Abraham gives them breathing room, inserting some wonderful pauses to allow us to hear the lines, both funny and profound. He and his cast have the sensitive ear of a musical ensemble, listening to one another. It’s lyrical and beautiful.
I heartily recommend that you get to Crow’s production of Uncle Vanya, running until October 2 at the Guloien Theatre. Click for more info.