Cogito: John Branch


Vanya in Soho

In introducing his account of life at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” adding for good measure that “From the desperate city [they] go into the desperate country.” That’s pretty much what Chekhov dramatized in Uncle Vanya, the subtitle of which is Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts. The play’s main characters are caught up in a swirl of unfulfilled desires, carrying their unhappiness with them, wanting life to be somehow other than what it is.

Everyone’s routines are interrupted when the professor and his pretty young wife arrive from the city, intending to live on the estate run by Vanya and Sonya, and for weeks little gets done. They weren’t content before—too little money (for the professor and Yelena, his wife) or too much drudgery (for Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov, the country doctor)—but idleness doesn’t suit them either. The possibility of love appears, then vanishes like a bursting soap bubble. In the end, the professor and Yelena find country life unlivable, and the others return to the familiar, dulling grind of their work. If Thoreau’s image of quiet desperation differs from the conclusion of Chekhov’s text, it’s only that Chekhov weaves in a handful of sounds, and even those are muted in the production of the play running through August 26 at Soho Rep.

Much has been made of Annie Baker’s new adaptation, possibly a little too much. Unlike Paul Schmidt, who in the late 90s published a volume of 12 Chekhov plays in colloquial American-English translations, Baker’s not a Russian scholar herself, so—as playwrights often do—she based her work on a literal rendering, by Margarita Shalina. It’s easy to see from Baker’s other writing that she has an affinity for Chekhov, but her collaborator deserves credit too. It’s also easy to hear some flavorful word choices—the noun “creep,” for instance—that catch American usage better than Schmidt does. And there are almost no Bakerisms in this show, only a few signs of her fondness for silences (beyond Chekhov’s own) and a reminder of her use of songs (as in The Aliens). What she has done best, though, is conceal her work, make the language not noticeable (a condition in which no translation lives for long).

What’s really exciting at Soho Rep is the levity and the production design. Chekhov described three of his major plays as comedies and termed Three Sisters a drama; it was Stanislavsky who viewed all four as tragedies, and for some time his influence on American theater was sufficient to make that view widespread. I’m not sure it’s behind us yet, but Sam Gold’s staging for Soho Rep gives us ample laughs. Admittedly, there are some untidy moments. For instance, Vanya’s wild pistol-waving and shooting at the professor is hampered by a trapdoor entrance both actors must use (the pistol, by the way, looks oddly like a Colt .45 Peacemaker). And quick blackouts rather than slow fadeouts would’ve been neater—fades feel a little too heavy. But we get a good overall sense of what Paul Schmidt called the “heartbreaking ridiculousness” of the characters’ behavior.

The special appeal of this production depends as well on Andrew Lieberman’s setting: we’re inside a wooden A-frame, seated on all four sides of the main playing area, with some of the action an arm’s length away. It’s not a purely environmental set. The roofing is pierced by cutouts for lighting, and large illuminated block letters spelling out the play’s Russian title in Cyrillic hang on the wall at one end. While being invited to feel we’re sharing a country house with the characters, even cooped up in it with them, we’re also reminded that this is a theater and we’re watching a play. Similarly, the costumes (designed by the protean Annie Baker) and the furnishings have a rough-and-ready contemporary feel, but this time the songs are all in Russian, and the text retains Russian character and place names as well as a few other words. We could be somewhere upstate today, but we’re also in Chekhov’s time and place.

Chekhov’s characters number nine, though some have little to do—he cared less for casting costs than today’s American playwrights usually must—and Baker hasn’t cut a soul. Nor are there any star turns among the players. If you notice differences among them—more moment-to-moment details from Michael Shannon’s Astrov, say, or a special satiric edge from Peter Friedman’s professor—that’s only because actors are different, and in close quarters their styles and qualities become more tangible. The finely polished ensemble effect of this cast is lovely to see. It’s just another of the many beauties in Soho Rep’s Vanya. tickets

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