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?
through Aug. 27 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Call 202-467-4600 or visit