Jun 7, 2012

Checking Off a New Vanya

The cast of Soho Rep's Uncle Vanya

In the spring of 2002 I appeared in an L.A. Classical Theatre Lab production of Uncle Vanya; I don't recall how they found me, but they needed a guitarist because their Waffles, Alex Wells, didn't play; I was given the two or three lines assigned to the hired man, and was then gently worked into the scenes in which Astrov asks Waffles to play. (For the record, I came up with some minor-key tunes that sounded a bit more Spanish than Russian, though I also threw in a few bits of my favorite Janacek string quartet for good measure.) The production was a success and was extended, running at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice after bowing at Hollywood's Met Theatre.

I went into the show more or less considering Vanya my favorite play, or at least my favorite Chekhov play, which comes to about the same thing. And it was a fine, intense, intimate production with an eminently watchable cast (the only "name" being Orson Bean, who made a perfectly dry-as-dust Serebryakov, though our stage manager, for what it's worth, happened to be James Tupper). Good thing it was watchable, because director Bruce Katzman's decision to have no one exit the space but simply go to chairs arranged around the back of the set when our scenes were done meant that I, and my castmates, took in every second of the show about a hundred times in a few months. My admiration for Uncle Vanya did not diminish—if anything, my appreciation for its fine-grained, multilayered craftmanship only grew—but I got more than my fill of its despairing beauty, enough to last me for a number of years. A break from Voinitsky et al was in order.

I've seen only a handful of productions since, none particularly impactful; Target Margin's recent meta-rendition left me cold, which I think may have been the intention. I do look forward with interest to the reportedly rip-roaring version by Sydney Theatre Company, coming to the Lincoln Center Fest later this summer.

In the meantime, though, I have been happily occupied with a consideration of the new version opening soon at Soho Rep, with playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold at the rudder. It's intimate, it's in the round, it's matter-of-factly contemporary, and it has a great cast (seen above)—in short, it promises to make explicit the link between Baker's exquisite, oblique observational writing (on sample in full in a fantastic new anthology published by my employer) and Chekhov's, which many critics have already noticed and eagerly pointed out.

My piece for the Times is here. One of many delicious details I couldn't fit in: In this production, Waffles does play guitar, and he and the hired man will be breaking into the authentic Russian stylings of Lubeh. You heard it here first.

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