Rejection, loneliness, despair. That’s what you can typically expect from Anton Chekhov. But here’s a secret: He’s funny, too.
“Uncle Vanya” (now playing at the Kennedy Center) is, like all of the great Russian dramatist’s works, a complex quadrille of jealousy and unrequited love. It’s set at a crumbling country estate that is cared for by Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), a misanthrope who feels he’s wasted his entire life.
Roxburgh — who’s starred in films including “Moulin Rouge” and “Van Helsing” — joins superstars Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving for this Sydney Theatre Company production of “Vanya,” transplanted from Australia under the steady hand of director Tamás Ascher.
“He’s not afraid of it. He’s not afraid to be irreverent with it,” Roxburgh says of Ascher’s attitude toward Chekhov’s work. “I’d always had an allergic reaction to the way I’d seen Chekhov done in Australia. Very dour, set in sitting rooms, a lot of sad Russian people moping about the place,” he explains. “And I’d always thought Chekhov was really funny, lively, vivacious.”
Chekhov’s humor here isn’t the escapist kind; it stems from his pitch-perfect encapsulations of the absurdities of life, situations that feel unsettlingly modern despite the fact that the play was written in the 1890s. “I wouldn’t call it uplifting,” Roxburgh admits.
Roxburgh’s relationship with this role goes back nearly 30 years. “I actually played Uncle Vanya when I was at drama school,” he says. “Even then, there was so much in it that I thought, ‘This is something I’m going to do when I’m the right age for it.’” This time around, though, he’s acting alongside international movie stars.
The real question is whether he makes “Matrix” jokes around Weaving, who played the chilly Agent Smith in those films. Roxburgh shakes his head. “I make fun of him for other things,” he laughs.
The lives of Vanya and his niece Sonya are upset when the owners of the estate they care for return, bringing newfangled ideas, upheaval and inescapable romantic entanglements along with them.
» Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; through Aug. 27, $59-$135; 202-467-4600, Kennedy-center.org. (Foggy Bottom)
Photo by Lisa Tomasetti