"There is no happiness for me anywhere. . .why are you laughing?"
Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" has been a staple of the American Theater since the turn of the last century. The story of a man who has been overlooked in most ways by the people he knows and serves and cares about, it has been through an amazing number of translations and versions through the years. The Sharon Playhouse is presenting the most unusual look at this play. Utilizing six separate translations from Marion Fell's 1916 edition through a Google Translate version and a troupe of eight actors director Morgan Green and her troupe have created a montage melange of a play, four acts of sincere Russian melodrama performed in a non-stop 93 minute version in which the eight actors often play multiple roles and almost as often play all six translations simultaneously.
It does help if you are familiar with the play. Even knowing it as well as I do it was occasionally confusing tracking who was playing whom and what was taking place. The story, thank goodness, is relatively straightforward. Aleksandr (played exclusively by David Greenspan), whose daughter owns their family home in the country, brings his young second wife home for a visit that is actually a business trip. He has decided that to save the family they must sell the property and put the money into an interest-bearing account of some sort. The reality of this enrages his brother-in-law Vanya who has carefully tended the family's base and who is secretly in love with his own neice, Sonya. Vanya's mother lives with them and so does Sonya's old nurse. Good neighbors, Ilya Ilych (known as Waffles) and Dr. Astrov are often with them. Astrov is in love with the young woman, Yelena, who is Sonya's stepmother. She is, or claimed to be, in love with her elderly husband. Sonya has a crush on Astrov but is more comfortable with her Uncle Vanya. Those are the plot elements you will need to understand the show.
This show needs understanding. Everyone plays almost everyone except for Aleksandr who is uniquely himself throughout. There are times when a character will perform six versions of the same line as though it was a mini-monologue. At other times multiple actors playing the same role at the same time will each perform a different translation of the same like simultaneously. At other times the line is broken into bits and distributed to different actors in a non-stop rendition of its words and phrases. Gender is not an issue in this production with men taking on women's roles and women taking on men's parts. You have to pay attention to costumes to keep this straight, if possible.
This sounds so confusing and it can become just that, except that this company is so very at ease in their various roles that you can catch up with them very quickly as long as you know the basics and pay close attention to posture, fur stole, poncho, hats and head-pieces. There are times when they sing and the music they sing, vocally beautiful with incredible harmonies, is by Deepali Gupta.
Alice Tavener's costumes are eclectic, setting the play somewhere in the 1930s I think, although there are some outfits that are timeless and some that reek of the early years of this century. Scenic Design, flexible and impressively simple, is by Kristen Robinson and Marsha Tsimring's lighting is effective and helpful at time in following the relationships that grow, multiplay and contract.
Morgan Green has directed this play with choreographic skill and, once again, the characters are defined well and interact perfectly. When she has multiple couples, all the same couple, on stage together she manages to move them operatically so that their individual versions of the scene play out well and with emphatic emphasis on the finer points of Chekhov's people's skills at avoidance.
The company on stage are without any individual moments that make them stand out from the ensemble sensibility of this play. They are: Milo Cramer, Jamal Crowelle, Fernando Gonzalez, David Greenspan, Kennedy Kanagawa, Caitlin Morris, Anne Troup and Madeline Wise. I would like to praise each one for his or her work, but I really cannot for they all move through this production with prodigious skill and talent.
This is not a play that will turn up in your local high school, dinner theater, or television set. The only way to experience it is to set yourself down in a chair in the Bok Gallery with its eighty seats, and prepare to get intimate with Chekhov. The author (not the translator) wrote of this play: "what happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart." What Chekhov wrote is exactly what this company is presenting. This is one to remember - or at least it's one you'll never forget!
Minor Character plays at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road (Route 343), Sharon, CT through June 27. For information and tickets call the box office at 860-364-7469 or go on line at www.sharonplayhouse.org.