Editors' pick

Uncle Vanya

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Editorial Review

A magnetic new vision for ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Monday, Aug 08, 2011

As shattered Uncle Vanya, Richard Roxburgh isn't merely a shell of a man. He's a shell of a shell, a quaking, sobbing wreck. Racked ever more violently by the realization that the professor for whom he has slaved is an intellectual sham and the woman he loves is forever out of reach, this tortured Vanya comes across as the active ingredient in utter despair.

"For 25 years, he's added nothing to nothing!" he wails bitterly about his adversary, as if suddenly understanding that his life adds up to the same sum. Roxburgh's desolation is so authentically articulated that you may sense you're feeling the totality of Vanya's pain for the first time. It's a startling portrayal, emblematic of the seismic emotions of the intoxicating, go-for-broke "Uncle Vanya" that comes from Down Under courtesy of Cate Blanchett and her Sydney Theatre Company.

All your suppositions about Chekhov's soulful gentility fly out the doors of the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater with this tornadic rendering of a country estate consuming itself in the misery of missed opportunities. Who says torpor isn't a dynamic noun? In director Tamas Ascher's inspired conception, even the bugs we hear whirring around the inhabitants' faces are calculated to drive up the harassment index, the sense that the household is being driven to distraction by forces minuscule and monumental.

Ascher, a Hungarian, moves the tragicomedy up in time, from Chekhov's czarist Russia, circa 1899, to the Soviet era, say around 1955. In the context of a spreading totalitarian malaise, the transposition - aided immensely by Andrew Upton's punchy translation - works terrifically. Our familiarity with reflections on the oppressiveness of the Soviet era turns this stifling landscape into apt metaphor. So when the magnetic doctor, Astrov, played to beguiling, vodka-soaked perfection by Hugo Weaving, talks of a brighter future for generations yet unborn, we intuit even more profoundly than usual that it's a future he doesn't believe in.

The period updating is packaged grandly by set designer Zsolt Khell: The manse of ghastly professorial prig Serebryakov (John Bell) and his younger second wife Yelena (Blanchett) is a shabby husk, with dirty walls and spartan furniture - the kind of place that looks as if it might long ago have been ransacked and stripped bare by emboldened members of the proletariat. It's a place in which grudges naturally marinate. Vanya, the brother of Serebryakov's late first wife, resentfully runs the estate with the professor's daughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney) while the older man lives the life of an esteemed academic, accompanied by the beautiful Yelena, whom Vanya not-so-secretly adores.

The Sydney company, run jointly by Blanchett and Upton, came to town two years ago with an astonishing version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which was anchored by the actress. In its way, this emotionally in-touch "Uncle Vanya," buoyed by its entire cast, is just as extraordinary.

Chekhov's gift for illuminating the essence of each of his characters' poignant, comic struggles is magnified in Ascher's treatment. The scenes crackle with spontaneity, and as a result, you often find yourself laughing at bits of behavior because you recognize them as both theatrically inventive and true. Are there not occasions in everyday life when a room rears up in awkward silence? This "Vanya" is filled with stunned moments emptied of conversation: Words frequently fail these unhappy people, which is perhaps why the scenes fueled by drink work particularly well here. Vodka really is the magic elixir of Russian ennui.

No time is this more delightfully apparent than in a surprising reconciliation scene between Blanchett's Yelena and McElhinney's Sonya. Their fractious standoff, forged out of plain-Jane Sonya's unrequited feelings for Astrov and her jealousy of Yelena, melts away after a few naughty shots, and soon they're on the floor, mischievously, hilariously. McElhinney manages to convey both the earthiness of Sonya - she seems completely the toughened young woman of the soil - and her readiness to yield to childish fancies. Her default posture in the house is perching on a little girl's chair, in the embrace of the old nanny, Marina (a fine Jacki Weaver).

Blanchett's high-strung, drop-dead-gorgeous Yelena is the yin to McElhinney's yang; costume designer Gyorgi Szakacs pours her into form-fitting red dresses and striking cream ensembles, as if all the proceeds from the working estate went into her closets. Sexually self-conscious, romantically malnourished and understandably restless, Blanchett's captivating Yelena walks the Earth as a creature hypersensitive to touch. Beseeched by the snarling, elderly Serebryakov for a crumb of affection, this Yelena grudgingly complies, and the way in which Blanchett seems to prepare herself for this ordeal recalls the manner in which contestants steeled themselves to swallow caterpillars on "Fear Factor."

The passionate attraction of Yelena to Astrov is just as palpable, and when at last she lets down her guard, the force unleashed is - like so much that occurs in this tortured, rural powder keg - concussive. The electrical charge is held all the way through to the play's waning moments, when Sonya tries, for what may be the 1,000th time, to give Vanya a rationale for going on.

On the basis of this "Vanya," no one should ever again try to convince you that Chekhov is a delicate flower. As Ascher shows us in his transformative production, the playwright's pen could contain dynamite.

Aussie twist on Chekhov

By Peter Marks
Friday, Aug 05, 2011

It's one thing to need a translator to adapt a play. It's quite another to need one to help direct it.

That trickier arrangement is how Australia-based Cate Blanchett and her writer-husband Andrew Upton, who jointly run the Sydney Theatre Company, decided to proceed with the star-power production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" that they've brought to the Kennedy Center for its only American stop. Seeking a world-class director for the revival, which began Thursday and features such accomplished Australian actors as Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh and Jacki Weaver, they consulted with British director Declan Donnellan for a recommendation, and he immediately offered up the name of the Hungarian theater artist Tams Ascher.

"He mentioned the name, and we did our research on Google," Upton says, adding that as it turned out, Blanchett and he had seen Ascher's work and liked it, a production of Chekhov's "Ivanov" that had visited Sydney several years before.

That Ascher spoke virtually not a word of English and would have to communicate his thoughts to a cast of nine Australians with vast stage experience, some with Oscar trophies and others with nominations, with their own histories of Chekhov and roles in movies ranging from "Captain America" to "Moulin Rouge!"? Hey, no problem!

"We both love seeing shows in other languages," Upton says of himself and his wife. He's speaking by telephone from Sydney, where, at the moment, he's minding their three young sons. "I think one of the most important gifts of a director, particularly in naturalism, is finding the psychological truths in a play. And those things are best found nonverbally."

It's Upton's new translation of "Uncle Vanya" - the plaintive, turn-of-the-20th-century portrait of lives passing through a country estate where Vanya (played by Roxburgh) pines in vain for the beautiful Yelena (Blanchett) - that's being used, a version that was tailored to Ascher's specifications. For example, the time of the events has been propelled forward vaguely to the Soviet era of the 1950s. So what patrons in the Eisenhower Theater will experience is a Russian play, adapted by a native English speaker, as filtered through the mind of a Hungarian. Oh - and performed in all-out Aussie accents.

"It's a historic assemblage of actors," Blanchett says, sitting in a Kennedy Center reception room, the Chinese Lounge, with some of her cast mates. The wish of Roxburgh - best known to moviegoers as the preening Duke in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" - to play Vanya was what set Blanchett and Upton on a Chekhovian course. "And when you have such fine actors," she adds, "you think, 'Who can really stretch them?' "

Blanchett is an anomaly among movie stars, an actress so loyal to the stage that she presides over one - well, actually, four - for a premier company in Australia's top theater town. Even more anomalous: This is her second visit with her group to the Eisenhower in two years. In 2009, she starred as Blanche DuBois in Sydney Theatre Company's glowingly received "A Streetcar Named Desire."

She had "a fantastic experience" with "Streetcar" in Washington: "It gave us a whole new lease of life on the text and the theater itself is exquisite, so 'live.' " So the decision to make the capital "Vanya's" one American home was not very difficult.

Still, the engagement, which runs through Aug. 27, is not without its peculiar challenges. "Streetcar" is a beloved American classic with a fine film version floating in memory; while the ache-infused "Uncle Vanya" has many adherents, Chekhov in the middle of a stifling summer could prove to be a tougher sell.

For the cast, though, the stretch began many months ago, in a Sydney rehearsal room: imagine, if you will, enrolling in a course in early-20th-century Russian literature in which all the lectures were conducted in a language you did not know. In that spartan room, they huddled with Ascher and Anna Lengyel, the Hungarian translator and dramaturg who would be the actors' comprehensible conduit to the director's animated instructions.

"He's very expressive. He leaps about," says Weaver, nominated this year for a Supporting Actress Academy Award for the intense crime drama "Animal Kingdom," and who plays the family retainer Marina. Sandy Gore, who portrays the widowed Maria, recalls the consternation in early rehearsals over figuring out whether she should be looking at Ascher or at Lengyel.

Adds Weaver: "It's kind of an exhausting process."

The cast members, dealing with the lingering effects of jet lag, file in to the Chinese Lounge in affable groups of three to talk about the play, and the growing overseas cachet these days of being an Australian actor. (Because of the crush of getting the play ready, Ascher could not make it for the conversations.)

As a result of the movie successes of a gallery of performers, many of them veritable brand names (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and on and on), the opportunities seem to be multiplying. Several of the "Vanya" actors remark on the changing fortunes for Australian drama school graduates, who now regularly fly out to L.A. with their diplomas. One of the actors recalls an American at a film audition, good-naturedly grumbling he'd have a better chance at a part if he affected an Australian accent.

"I think we're just more confident now," says Andrew Tighe, who plays a worker on the estate. Hayley McElhinney, the production's dewy Sonya, says that watching the reception that some of her older colleagues have gotten in the United States and Europe is inspirational: "That really has had an impact on my work."

At the moment, though, the actors are seeking to reconnect with one another. Their Australian run in "Vanya" ended at the beginning of 2011. They spent several recent days in Sydney together, reestablishing the emotional rhythms that are so crucial to understanding the ingrained lightness and anguish of a Chekhov household.

They all say they learned a lot from Ascher, even though they discovered it was sometimes easier to work out a minor issue on their own rather than to go through the tedium of having questions and answers translated back and forth. The hard part sometimes, says Weaving, who portrays Astrov and is a familiar face from the "Matrix" film franchise, was drawing out discussions of the subtleties of their roles, because "a lot of the characters' impulses aren't in the text."

As for the text itself, Ascher's approach took some of them by surprise: Intriguingly, he disavows any flowery, lyrical treatment of Chekhov's language.

"We kept it as literal as possible," Upton says of the translation. "Tamas pointed out that the sentences in 'Vanya' are really short. And often what the characters say to each other is quite cruel."

To Roxburgh, Ascher's directorial style was "kind of old school; he tells you the end result. But what he's really talking about is the creation of an atmosphere." Through his translator, too, he was willing to be as straightforward as he wanted the script to sound.

"We're kind of mollycoddled by our directors - it's very touchy-feely," Roxburgh says of the Australian way, which draws knowing laughs from Weaver and Weaving. Ascher would have none of that. "He would just say, 'Don't do that. It looks silly.' There was that to come to terms with. No matter who you are, he will tell you exactly what he's feeling."

The Australians are just beginning to find out how this internationally forged "Vanya" comes across to Americans. Funnily enough, their biggest collective worry seems to be how they themselves will sound: They wonder, a bit bleary-eyed, if a Washington crowd will accept a Russian estate where everyone speaks Australian?