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New adaption of Uncle Vanya worth a look
New adaption of Uncle Vanya worth a look
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Craig Lucas
Directed by Bartlett Sher
June 12 - July 18, 2007


Maybe Russian theater doesn't have to be glum. Playwright Anton Chekhov may have been misunderstood by modern audiences. That's the implication that Intiman Theatre gives by having Craig Lucas create a new adaptation of Chekhov's play, "Uncle Vanya." Certainly, this new production has a lot of humor in the first act. Characters whine a lot, but they are certainly pretty funny when they do it. Particular Uncle Vanya, as played by Mark Nelson. His melodramatic, exhausted, overworked, jealous Uncle Vanya has wonderful comedic timing as he dryly criticizes his brother-in-law's visit and the great sucking sound the brother-in-law makes as everything around him has to come to a complete halt to refocus just on Professor Serebriakov.

The play still takes place around 1900 and there are still no electric lamps or other modern conveniences. The costumes by Deb Trout still reflect the proper time and place of the original play. The professor comes to the country estate with his young second wife to visit his daughter and brother-in-law, because the money he has been getting from the estate is deemed not enough to live on in the city. Everyone caters to the professor. He's a learned man. He's well-respected. He's completely oblivious to anyone else beside himself. His obliviousness is so complete that he suggests selling the family home to get some cash and doesn't include any plans for where his daughter, mother-in-law and brother-in-law would end up living.

This new adaptation plays up colloquialisms and humor, bringing a modern sounding sensibility to the poetic language of Chekhov's play. Changing a (pretend) line like "shut your mouth" to "put a sock in it" brings a freshness to it, without changing the intention of the play. So, why does the second act then run out of steam and begin to drag, exactly like the "old" idea of Chekhov? There are aspects of the second act that seem to beg for a slapstick quality, even as things are going spectacularly wrong for Uncle Vanya. Sonya (played nicely by Kristin Flanders), who is a young woman but we don't quite know how young, starts to get older by the minute as she paints her future in bleaker and bleaker terms.

Samantha Mathis, as the young wife all the men desire, has lots of the right amounts of attractive qualities, but seems just too smart to sit around and do nothing, and just too independent to do whatever her husband desires. Is that the adaptation or a limitation in the acting? It's very hard to tell.

There are several extra characters that in this adaptation seem barely used or even needed, so they become filler. The doctor, played by Tim Hopper, seems terribly miscast. He displays no charisma toward anyone, really, and is supposed to be the other person everyone is attracted to. His style seems at odds, especially in the first act, with the melodramatic and humorous styles of everyone else. Later, he fails to help the second act move along. He does seem to be a Chekhovian version of Al Gore, however, which is amusing, as he talks about forest decimation and habitat decline and shows his views on a "powerpoint" of canvases on the floor. That brings at least this much of the play to a modern flavor.

The mother, initially amusingly played by Lori Larsen, becomes totally irrelevant by the end, even as the main characters talk about their futures right in front of her, and she just sits not interacting at all. Why would that be? A neighbor landowner, played by Todd Jefferson Moore, at first seems comic relief and later doesn't seem all that comic and does not relieve. Paula Nelson, as Nanny, is the one minor character who seems to be able to walk that line between melodrama and pathos and hits the right notes with consistency throughout. Allen Fitzpatrick's Professor seems appropriately oblivious, bombastic and pompous.

If you have never seen Chekhov, this production could be a great introduction and help you understand the Russian sensibilities of that time a bit better. But, by the end of the second act, you might end up understanding why some people don't like Chekhov, because the usual productions end up slowly bringing everyone in the play to grief. It would have been nice if this production could have finished up what it started with the same energy.

For more information, go to www.intiman.org or 206-269-1900.

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