Why are we suddenly up to our samovars with Chekhov in general and “Uncle Vanya” in particular? Playwright Christopher Durang explains it all for you.
“I don’t quite know,” he says.
The 2015 calendar already has delivered “Life Sucks,” Aaron Posner’s liberal adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” at Theater J, and an Americanized new translation of “Uncle Vanya” at Baltimore’s Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Now 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker’s “Uncle Vanya” is at Round House Theatre with a novelty cast that features notable D.C. artistic directors past (Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman and Round House’s Jerry Whiddon) and present (Round House’s Ryan Rilette).
This is happening exactly as Durang’s 2013 Tony-winning comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” arrives at Arena Stage, directed by Posner. Posner’s souped-up take on “The Seagull,” titled “Stupid F---ing Bird,” was such a hit for Woolly Mammoth that the troupe revived its 2013 production last year. Next season, Woolly will tour the show to Syracuse, N.Y., and Portland, Ore.
And it was only three seasons ago that Cate Blanchett played a jittery Yelena in “Vanya” at the Kennedy Center.
Need a breath, or a shot of vodka? Just for you there’s “Drunkle Vanya,” an interactive game/performance presented by LiveArtDC at the Pinch, a bar in Columbia Heights.
Taking a stab at explaining all this Chekhov, Posner cites a passage from J.D. Salinger’s novel “Franny and Zooey”:
Have you ever seen a really beautiful production of, say, “The Cherry Orchard?” Don’t say you have. Nobody has. You may have seen “inspired” productions, “competent” productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov’s talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul on stage.
In other words, you can never get it right.
“You can’t do definitive Chekhov,” suggests Zinoman, who is acting for the first time in four decades.
“The standard of Chekhov,” Posner says, “is tell all the truth about the most complex things in the world in the simplest possible ways. He’s created the highest bar there is.”
Strictly speaking, Posner’s plays aren’t Chekhov. He follows the plots but modernizes and digresses; the titles tell you he’s going to be fooling around with the durable themes (love, frustration, how to live happily). Posner has a character in “Bird” loudly admit that the show is ripping off a classic, cashing in on marquee value and conjuring the magic of Chekhov’s famous characters.
“I’m not cynical about that at all,” Posner says. “I am an adapter. I don’t make stuff up wholesale. The fact that I am borrowing from Chekhov lets me operate with a master in the room.”
Durang’s “Vanya” is even looser. It’s not a parody or a satire, but recognizably from the author of the neurotically comic “Beyond Therapy,” “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” and more over a career launched in the 1970s. The characters are named after Chekhov’s figures because their late parents were professors and community theater enthusiasts. The setting is a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa., like the one where Durang lives. Spike — not a name from Chekhov — is a sexy young actor. Another character, Cassandra, comes from even farther out of left field.
The more you know Chekhov, the more you’ll get out of this and out of Posner’s fancy flights. But both writers wanted to avoid making that a prerequisite.
“The number of people who really know Chekhov is much smaller than theater people tend to think,” Posner says. Durang agrees: “When people talk about the play, they don’t talk about Chekhov much, frankly. They say things like, ‘It was so funny,’ or ‘We liked when the siblings made peace.’ ”
After all, “real” Chekhov is complicated. That’s one reason why Durang’s “Vanya” — the most-produced non-Shakespeare play in the country’s regional theaters this season — is the closest that the busy Posner has come to directing one.
“They’re too hard,” says Posner, who directs Shakespeare all the time.
Even defining Chekhov is difficult. Comic? Chekhov thought so. Tragic? Durang, speaking by phone from Bucks County, wonders whether there isn’t an American optimism that looks for the brighter options, even though he thinks tragedy has the upper hand in the original.
His own comic springboard was basic recognition. Sitting at home one day, looking out the window at a heron near a pond, it occurred to Durang, 66, that he is now older than Uncle Vanya.
“I’m actually not one of the unhappy characters in Chekhov,” Durang says. “But what if I had been?”
At Round House, Whiddon refers to the “firepower” around the table for “Vanya” rehearsals, and he doesn’t just mean the long-term executives who are unexpectedly taking the stage for the occasion. Director John Vreeke’s cast includes reliable Washington area actors Mitchell Hébert as the angst-y Vanya, Kimberly Gilbert as the suffering Sonya, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as the alluring Yelena, Nancy Robinette as the nurse and Mark Jaster, artistic director of the whimsical-physical-mime Happenstance Theatre, as the hanger-on Waffles.
But Rilette has performed only briefly as an understudy since taking over Round House in 2012. Whiddon, who retired from Round House in 2005, last acted in — what else? — Theatre J’s “The Seagull on 16th Street” six years ago.
Then there’s Zinoman.
“Complete terror,” says the famously fearless Studio Theatre founder, who stepped down in 2010(though she still teaches acting). She began acting as a child and performed on stages in Asia when she lived there with her husband, but she says her last performance was in a 1975 show for New Playwrights directed by Molly Smith. When Rilette offered her a role in “Vanya,” she said, “I had no idea if I could do it at all. I’ve only acted in 30-second snippets for the last 40 years in class.”
They share views about the challenge — and, it turns out, the pleasure — of just being an actor when everyone else in the room knows you as “boss.” But Chekhov was the magnet, especially for Zinoman.
“If it wasn’t Chekhov, I wouldn’t do it,” she says. “There’s nothing I care more about.”
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher Durang.
April 3-May 3 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $45-$110, subject to change. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org.
“Uncle Vanya,” by Anton Chekhov, new version by Annie Baker. April 8-May 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets $35-$50. 240-644-1100. www.roundhousetheatre.org.