theater reviews

Theater Reviews: A Vanya in Contemporary English, and a 20th-Century Emperor Present But Not Seen

From Uncle Vanya, at the Hunter Theater Project. Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s an easy leap to call Richard Nelson “Chekhovian.” The prolific playwright and director, known for his trilogies about American families at political turning points (The Gabriels and The Apple Family plays), is interested in building subtle, understated stage-worlds — modern slice-of-life dramas in which actors, dressed simply and interacting with simple domestic objects, attempt a kind of hyperrealism that verges on mumblecore. Dozens of tiny microphones often hang above the spare sets in Nelson’s productions, ensuring that his actors don’t have to switch their focus from their onstage relationships to something as artificial as being heard. Of course, those relationships are artificial, too, but that’s not the point. The point is that Nelson has a style — a gentle, meticulous, and, at its best, stealthily moving style — that might seem to suggest a natural fit with Chekhov’s plays, at least insofar as we tend to conceive of those plays on modern American stages. As an adaptor, he’s created his own versions of Three Sisters, The Seagull, and The Wood Demon (an early work whose later drafts became Uncle Vanya), and now, as a consulting director and cocreator, he’s embarked on a collection of new Chekhov translations with the preeminent Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s an exciting project, a collaboration that acknowledges, in Nelson’s words, that “a play is basically a series of notations for something else,” and a new dramatic translation has something to accomplish besides literary merit, even besides unswerving fidelity to its source. Like so many of Chekhov’s own flustered, flailing, frustrated characters, it wants to live.

It’s a pity, then, that Nelson, Pevear, and Volokhonsky’s new version of Uncle Vanya, now at the Hunter Theater Project under Nelson’s characteristically delicate direction, often seems to stick in the mouths of its actors. The cast is, for the most part, superb, and in the moments in which they’re not shown to their best advantage, their inherent abilities are still clearly visible beneath the text. But they’re not always visible through it. Despite Pevear and Volokhonsky’s literary prowess and Nelson’s theatrical sensitivity, this Uncle Vanya is simply not that speakable. And Nelson’s personal style — the understatement, the simple modern aesthetic, the deliberate anti-theatricality — ultimately serves to highlight the translation’s recurring clunkiness. Though my personal preference with Chekhov is always for language that leaps easily from the mouths of actors (for which translations have got to evolve, generation to generation), it’s possible to get away with a certain amount of textual stiffness in a more heightened production. Or rather, when the show is covered with frills and flourishes, it takes a keener ear to pick out starchy archaisms and a certain taste to object to them. Here, the actors are all, and their words have nowhere to hide, no competition for our attention. It’s a credit to them, to Nelson as a director, and to the irrepressible brilliance of Chekhov that the production still manages, labored language and all, to find moments of real humor and pathos.

Jay O. Sanders is an outstanding Vanya, a hulking bear of a man with a brow whose wrinkles go from the lines of wry, eyebrow-raising mockery to the deep furrows of shame and despair. His story unfolds over the course of a hot summer, on the country estate that he and his niece Sonya (the excellent, unsentimental Yvonne Woods, who tilts her head like some tall, inquisitive bird) have been maintaining for Sonya’s father, Vanya’s brother-in-law, an aging professor of art called Serebryakov (a querulous Jon DeVries). Now the professor himself has shown up on the estate with his very young and very attractive second wife (his first, Vanya’s sister, is long dead). Her name is Elena; Celeste Arias plays her with downturned eyes and an unaffected, resigned air, and every man in the play gets himself into a state over her. Well, not so much her husband, who at this point is fretting over his gout and his mortality, and who presumably already went through his honeymoon period with her — but Vanya is smitten. And so is, more surreptitiously, the local doctor, Astrov (Jesse Pennington, who’s got natural magnetism, though he murmurs his whole part in a fuzzy monotone and never opens his eyes more than halfway until the curtain call).

Also around, drinking tea and eating soup, are Marya (a chilly Alice Cannon), Vanya’s severe old mother, who makes him feel great about himself by saving all of her affection and pride for the professor, and Marina (Kate Kearney-Patch, with sad eyes and infinite patience), the family’s former nanny, who there-theres the menfolk as if they were overtired children when they start whining, which is often. (Tellingly, this production dispenses with the character of Telegin, an impoverished, doofy neighbor nicknamed “Waffles” who’s a benign hanger-on at the estate. I imagine Nelson wanted to streamline the domestic focus of the play, but cutting Waffles is a shame — a lot of wacky, pathetic, yet strangely vital eccentricity goes with him. He — to use the “untranslatable word” that caused Nelson, Pevear, and Volokhonsky such long deliberation — is a true “chudak.”) The presence of Elena and the Professor disrupts the quiet, if not particularly happy, routine at the estate, dredging up long-brewing resentments and inciting misguided passions (even more misguided than usual in this production, where the age-gap between Elena and Vanya is painfully, creepily wide). The play’s arc is that of a muted explosion, a grenade underneath a pile of wool blankets: It starts sleepily enough, fuses are lit, there’s a bang, and then everything calms back down.

The show’s creators are depending on a couple of quotations from and about Chekhov, which they’ve included in the program, to support their commitment to Nelson’s brand of naturalism: “A great majority of [people] suffer,” Chekhov wrote to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, “but … do you see them throwing themselves about, jumping up and down or clutching their heads in their hands? Suffering should be expressed as in life itself, not with your arms and legs but by a tone of voice, or a glance; not by gesticulating but by elegance.” Add to this an anecdote about the playwright, in which he stopped an actress playing Sonya in Uncle Vanya from going down on her knees before her father, reportedly saying, “You mustn’t do that, that isn’t what drama is … The whole meaning or drama of a person lies internally, not in outer manifestations. There was drama in Sonya’s life prior to this moment, and there will be subsequently, but this is just an occurrence.”

These are fascinating and, for Nelson, convenient excerpts from the historical record, though they hardly need prescribe the one and only approach to Chekhov’s plays (just look at how the Russians treat him these days — with considerably less reverential realism but with a taproot straight into his humane, idiosyncratic essence). But if, for the sake of the production at hand, we take the playwright’s admonitions to heart, then it becomes imperative that actors be able to access the kind of subtlety, the kind of elegantly expressive realism he’s talking about, and that comes from feeling intimately at home in the language. Here, the only actors who are consistently able to find natural rhythms in the text are Sanders and Woods. Pennington has resorted to charismatic mumbling to make it through Astrov’s speeches, and Arias’s Elena is especially burdened with awkwardly formal speech. “If you believe in oaths, I swear to you,” she insists to Sonya, about her marriage to the professor, “I married him for love. He fascinated me as a scholar and a famous man. It wasn’t real love, it was artificial, but … I’m not to blame.” The tweaks in the ear are subtle, but they’re there. Oaths, artificial, I’m not to blame — why not, simply, “It’s not my fault”? The text that Pevear, Volokhonsky, and Nelson have created is full of vocabulary and phrasing that, for all their efforts, still carries a whiff of the BBC miniseries: “wicked;” “unbecoming;” “pure” (repeatedly, to describe virtue); “Forgive me;” “Even a saint wouldn’t have patience enough, you must agree;” “To succumb to such a man’s charm, to forget oneself;” “You’d do better not to grumble;” and so on.

Watching Nelson’s fine actors attempt to find themselves inside this speech, I thought back to his Illyria at the Public Theater last year. Working in his own idiom, with all the bumps and bristles of contemporary conversation, Nelson can do truly affecting things. Though the jump to Chekhov might seem a natural one, this translation has stranded him somewhere in the middle, between the real and the artificial. And, for all his advice to the players, Chekhov himself was more theatrical than he let on. There are soliloquies in Vanya, which here seem to rub up against the intentional anti-drama of the play’s muted style: Are we in the room with these actors or are we flies on the wall in the lives of these people? Suffering people might not jump up and down and clutch their heads in real life, but nor do they often sit alone, speaking their feelings aloud. When we run from the latent theatricality in Chekhov, even on his own orders, we lose something in his plays, something that perhaps even the playwright himself — who, though brilliant, was deeply and touchingly insecure — might not have apprehended. We lose some of their unsoundable depths, a sense of the strangeness and violence and poetry and absurdity that render his works, domestic though they appear, as expansive and elastic as Shakespeare’s. We might achieve some of the pathos — which is why this Uncle Vanya remains affecting as a subdued portrait of the grinding, mundane pain of a perhaps wasted life — but we sacrifice the bracing rush of life that should hit you like a slap in the face before the characters, battered and bemused, settle back down into the deadening business of living.

The Emperor, a two-performer meditation on the man-made mythos of power, is part Brechtian commentary, part clown show, part investigation of the last days of a real regime — that of the Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie, whose four-decade reign ended when he was deposed in 1974 — and part playful, piercing allegory. It’s a concentrated, compelling piece of theater with a light touch, recently adapted by Colin Teevan from a 1978 book by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. As the only foreign correspondent for the impoverished Polish Press Agency, Kapuściński travelled to Ethiopia in 1975 with a singular goal in mind: to locate and interview Selassie’s few surviving servants and palace officials, the people who watched from the background, opening doors or carrying pillows or counting out money, as a seeming demigod was dethroned.

Walter Meierjohann’s spare, expressive production has travelled to Brooklyn from the Young Vic in London, and it stars the Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke and the British physical theater virtuoso Kathryn Hunter. Zeleke grounds the story in its historical context, providing a stirring soundscape of percussion, vocals, and the Ethiopian lyre called the krar, and participating in the action sometimes as mute witness and sometimes as the voice of the Ethiopian populace in revolt (when he speaks, he speaks in Amharic, without subtitles). The second performer — a European woman speaking to us in English, using dialects and mannerisms whose connotations of class and character we immediately register — widens Kapuściński’s documentary into parable. It’s a theatrical gesture that lets us see The Emperor as the Poles, living under their own oppressive regime in 1978, immediately saw it: as a story of rulers everywhere, of corruption and dispossession anywhere, of our tacit human agreement to participate in the mirages and misdirections of the theater of politics — what Teevan calls “the grand illusion” of power. (Poland went crazy for The Emperor, which made it around the censors on a technicality and was adapted for the Polish stage 17 times in less than ten years.)

From The Emperor, at Theater for a New Audience. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Conjuring the upholders of this illusion for us is the impish shape-shifter Hunter, who bends her crackly voice and diminutive frame to become each of Selassie’s menials, from the lowly wiper of His Majesty’s dog’s urine to the shrewd, swaggering minister of information. The 61-year-old Hunter — who has visited Theater for a New Audience before, in a solo show based on Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy” (another collaboration with Teevan and Meierjohann) and as Puck in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — is, more than almost any actor I’ve seen, a knavish sprite. With dark, bright eyes, a mop of gray hair above a sharp, pliable face, and a simple military jacket in which she seems able to shrink or expand, adding a cane or a pair of spectacles or a stiff back or a wide stride here and there, she conjures up a whole court of distinctive human beings. These royal zookeepers and purse-bearers and chauffeurs and clerks are often clownish but never fully ridiculous. Even Selassie’s timekeeper — the preening, affected G.H.M. (they’re all noted by their initials in Louis Price’s video design), who’s mockingly referred to as “cuckoo” by the rest of the court — maintains a sense of dignity beneath the flounce. The show is a kind of Remains of the Day for these men (they are all men, though the simple fact of Hunter’s casting reminds us that women were present, too, their roles and fates all the more invisible and disturbing). As they reflect on their Emperor and his downfall, they reveal their own pride, their own sense of purpose, and, gradually, their own shames and doubts.

Whether as the grave, sympathetic butler who stays with Selassie till the very end, reading to him from the Book of Psalms, or as the macho, cynical minister of information who smiles through his teeth at the foreign press, denying the ravages of famine in Ethiopia by inquiring sweetly, “How can there be famine when there is development?” — Hunter sketches each player in Selassie’s political theater with sly wit and technical finesse. As actors working on Shakespeare are often reminded: How do we know which one is the king? Not from how he acts, but from how everyone else acts around him. In The Emperor, Selassie is no more than a whispered name and an empty chair, but everyone is complicit in the narrative of his omnipotence. Hundreds of lives shatter with his, because hundreds of senses of self depended on his myth. In his wake comes not freedom or prosperity, but a cultural identity crisis that makes way for a bloody civil war which, together with continued famine, takes almost 3.5 million lives. Hunter, Zeleke, Meierjohann, and Teevan reveal all this with agility, wisdom, and humor, leaving the words of one bespectacled little palace clerk, known only as T.M., echoing in our memories: “Now that it’s all gone, it fascinates me, how we once believed.”

Uncle Vanya is at the Hunter Theater Project through October 14.
The Emperor is at Theater for a New Audience through September 30.

Theater: A ‘Vanya in Our English, and an Emperor Unseen