Director Louis Malle's 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street brought David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya to the screen. It's a magnificent movie, beautifully written and a veritable textbook on the art of acting. But it has left a big problem for theater companies: How in the world can any company now do Uncle Vanya without being unfavorably compared to the movie? One answer, and the one successfully chosen by Germinal Stage Denver's artistic director Ed Baierlein, is to reinterpret the play altogether--to choose acting styles as radically different from the film's as possible and to find some edge Mamet didn't.
Baierlein has adapted the play himself, using contemporary American slang to revivify the story for his late-twentieth-century audience. And the production naturally bears the stamp of Baierlein's peculiar brand of pessimism--which includes a terrific wit and icy intelligence. Of course, whether or not Baierlein's vision is Chekhov's vision is open to debate--and debate is just what this production inspires. The night I saw it, some patrons stood around outside the theater discussing the play with more animation than I have almost ever seen after a performance.
The story takes place at a country estate near the close of the nineteenth century. Vanya has begun drinking and refusing to do his fair share of the work on the place, which he manages with his niece, Sonya. The reason for his distracted behavior is the beautiful Yelena, the second wife of Sonya's father, Professor Serebryakov. The professor, a has-been art critic, is a selfish blowhard with nothing on his mind but his own ego and his own comfort. Yelena has married him partly for his fortune, partly for his celebrity, and partly because she was deluded into thinking she loved him.
Sonya resents Yelena, whom she considers to be too young for her father. It doesn't help that Sonya's main heartthrob, Dr. Astrov, is also attracted to her beautiful stepmother. Yet Sonya is the most sympathetic person in the whole play. Her tenderness toward Uncle Vanya makes her remarkable among the characters. Her passionate love for the disillusioned and hardened Dr. Astrov makes her tragic. And her readiness to forgive both her father and Yelena makes her foolish, but noble.
Not too much happens during the course of this play, yet everyone stands revealed for who he or she is. The doctor is an idealist who is incapable of love. Yelena may genuinely wish to befriend Sonya, but she is morally lazy and casually betrays her stepdaughter, flirting with Dr. Astrov under Sonya's roof and living thoughtlessly off Sonya's hard work. Sonya's father is simply full of himself. And poor, tormented Vanya, so tender, so passionate, has repressed his own needs in favor of the professor's for so long that when he finally realizes how he has squandered his life, he is stricken with grief and bitterness. But at least Vanya has Sonya, and the affection of this plain, suffering woman is worth having. It's also sustaining, even in the throes of brute suffering.
Steve Brown is a marvelous surprise as Vanya. Inventive, intelligent and funny, he imbues his character with a just rage and personal anguish that is always utterly involving. Jennefer Morris is likewise arresting as Sonya, delivering a wistful, wise performance consistent with Sonya's status as the only one allowed to find some meaning in all the story's sorrow. Despite the coolness of Baierlein's treatment, Sonya's final speech still draws sniffles from the audience--as well as an ache of recognition too strong to resist.
Baierlein's Professor Serebryakov is so childishly self-absorbed that he exudes a kind of glee. This is a heartless, absurdist hero. But Baierlein's masterful touches keep us interested in and laughing at the professor. It's a wonderful, bitter performance.
The big chill in this production, though, reveals itself in Ellen Orloff's and Stephen R. Kramer's performances as Yelena and Dr. Astrov. Orloff plays Yelena as a stupid, thoughtless bimbo--an interpretation belied by much of her dialogue. Kramer, too, goes for a numb look--all his conservationist rhetoric sounds phony. His whining, his silly desire, even his good works appear utterly empty. Astrov is not usually presented this way, and the attraction between him and Yelena has a cheap, oafish quality that few directors besides Baierlein would have the guts to present.
Yet despite the obvious ingenuity of Germinal Stage's adaptation, something of the play's depth has been lost. Baierlein has bravely stuck to an anti-sentimental, almost absurdist line that Chekhov himself might well have liked (most productions are too sentimental to have pleased the playwright known as the "good doctor"). But with all of Baierlein's emphasis on farce, he has undermined much of the tragedy--the horror of so many wasted lives, so much hopeless love and such thoroughly squandered talents.
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That's a shame. But it doesn't completely dampen the provocative spirit of the production. At least Baierlein has them thinking and talking again. And who knows? All this depravity may even give us some idea as to why the Russian Revolution got started in the first place.
Uncle Vanya, through October 13 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.