Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet begins casually and ends by breaking your heart. The latest from the adventurously lo-fi theater troupe Bedlam — which has earned a reputation for joyfully reinvigorating classic texts, from Hamlet and St. Joan to Sense & Sensibility and Peter Pan — is a new kind of experiment for the company. It’s a riff on two plays at once, Shakespeare’s youthful romantic tragedy and Chekhov’s mature and moody comedy, that uses the former like an emotional lever to pry the latter wide open. Director Eric Tucker, who originally planned to present the two plays in rep, changed his mind when he began to see the ghosts of Romeo and Juliet’s reckless, verse-spouting lovers still wishing and sighing away inside of Uncle Vanya’s washed-up, lovelorn provincials. He took a risk and made a single performance instead of two, working with Kimberly Pau, who created the very free, and very freeing, adaptation of Vanya the company uses as its home base. The result is a playground for actors, in which the author English-speaking audiences know more intimately helps us see into the vitality of the one we tend to find more opaque. In Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, Chekhov’s characters become the foundation from which five fine performers (including Tucker) can vault up into Shakespeare’s dizzy heights. We see their souls expand — or rather, we see more clearly the boundlessness that was always theirs to begin with. And these wild flights make their landings — back in Uncle Vanya, back in a world much more like ours, where people don’t kill their rivals or die for love or burn out gloriously but simply keep on aging, hurting, living — all the more devastating.
The tone is light to begin with, almost tossed off. Tucker and his fellow actors, wearing modern costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane that feel lived in and personal, enter the space like what they are: a group of friends getting ready to do a thing. The preshow music keeps playing as they chat quietly, tinkering with props or adjusting one of the whimsical rolling trees that stand here and there across John McDermott’s open, in-the-round set. (Almost everything that needs to enter or exit the space is on wheels — McDermott gives the company an empty space and a bunch of toys to play with.) When two of Chekhov’s characters emerge in the casual banter, you hardly notice the shift. But then there’s scruffy, charming, alcoholic doctor Astrov (Tucker), refusing to take tea and asking Sonya (Susannah Millonzi) — the hard-working, self-effacing country girl who loves him — how long they’ve known each other.
Vanya aficionados might balk a bit here, as this conversation originally occurs between Astrov and the old nanny, Marina, who doesn’t exist in this adaptation. But Marina’s lines aren’t simply given to Sonya in order to streamline the cast of characters: As the play goes on and Chekhov’s sad clowns start spouting sonnets, Millonzi’s Sonya often finds herself channeling not Juliet, but the Nurse. In a smart, cruel move, she’s got to assume the role of old maid — literally and figuratively — both inside and outside her own play. (“This is the life of an actress,” warns one of the protagonists of the marvelous Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows: “You play the ingénues, you play the queens, you play the dreaded Nurse, then you retire.”) Here, as the disgruntled, increasingly maniacal Vanya (Edmund Lewis) or the jaded, playing-it-cool Astrov make love to the sexy, slouching Yelena (Zuzanna Szadkowski), all three of them get to rocket off into Romeo’s poetry, or Juliet’s, or Mercutio’s. Sonya, full of desire and yet passed over, is forced into retirement before her time. “Now, afore God, I am so vexed, that every part about me quivers,” she whispers, near tears, after an encounter with Astrov in which she tries to hint at her feelings and he sidesteps her. The Nurse has never sounded so full of pathos, and she helps the sensational, slow-burning Millonzi unlock Sonya’s pain.
All five of the show’s actors feel entirely at home in Shakespeare’s language, which becomes a miraculous tool for them, a means of expansion and escape. They can treat it with conversational ease, and often do in the show’s early scenes, where bits of Romeo and Juliet show up more sporadically, like strange, exotic bubbles floating up to the surface of their Chekhovian characters’ humdrum lives. But as the hot, boring day that begins Uncle Vanya advances into a turbulent, wakeful night — and then into a climax of misplaced desires, flirtations gone too far, betrayals, and attempted acts of violence — full-throated Shakespeare takes the wheel. Once the despairing Vanya has aimed his gun at the Professor (Randolph Curtis Rand), the play leaps into an extended dream sequence, a heady, condensed rush of R&J that takes us all the way from the lovers’ wedding to their suicides. Szadkowski’s Yelena, visibly panicked by the role she’s allowed herself to be cast in, wears a white wedding dress and pours herself into spine-tingling renditions of “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds” and “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” She has no choice but to play Juliet: The men have put her there. And, true to the distractible, divided soul of Chekhov’s character, sometimes she revels in her part and sometimes she’s revolted by it.
Meanwhile, Lewis’s Vanya, a gentle but obsessive soul come undone, writhes and weeps and delivers Romeo’s “banishéd” speech with all the soaring, self-absorbed ardor of a desperate teenager. Then, as he fumbles in the pockets of Astrov’s coat in search of the “bitter conduct” to his demise, Romeo’s poison and the morphine Vanya palms from the doctor become one. Rand’s suave, reserved professor, who has dared to give voice to Friar Lawrence’s warning to “love moderately,” lies still with a bullet in the heart (it’s Vanya/Romeo’s fantasy, so his death blows actually land), and steady, selfless Sonya sits quietly — watching it all, waiting for her wounded, wistful uncle to come back to earth.
I wrote recently about another Vanya, where it felt to me that the production’s theatrical abstinence left the breadths and depths of its characters only partially sounded. The brilliance of Tucker and his company is to hold up a Shakespearean mirror to Chekhov in order to unleash his oft-hidden weirdness, wildness, and yearning. In these actors’ hands — not despite the show’s intertextual nature but because of it — certain scenes from Uncle Vanya played more powerfully than I’ve seen in a long time. When Tucker and Lewis interweave “Queen Mab” with Astrov and Vanya’s night of commiseration and vodka shots, or when Millonzi’s Sonya starts her tentative bonding session with Szadkowski’s Yelena by asking shyly, “Juliet, how stands your disposition to be married?” — something deep and true shines out of the characters. Szadkowski and Millonzi are outstanding: Their first scene together leaps out at you, not simply because the play’s two women are alone for the first time, but because these actors understand exactly the complex interplay of insecurity, desired intimacy, competition, and loneliness that their characters are going through. When, for a few brief moments, Szadkowski lets herself cut loose to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” it feels like the perfect eruption of bottled-up frustrations and sensual urges. Bonnie Tyler is Chekhov, too.
Karin Graybash’s excellent sound design launches the play into cheesy pop music in all the right moments, but the hilarious, liberating strains of songs like “Careless Whisper” never last long. The fantasy, be it spun by Shakespeare or George Michael, has to give way to reality, and after we’ve been allowed to dance and drift and dream on our own inner Romeos and Juliets, the snap back to life as it must be lived, day to difficult day, is a shock to the system. More shocking still — in the simplest, most intimate way — are Millonzi’s final moments as Sonya. As she stood in the emotional wreckage of the play’s conclusion, finally allowing herself to whisper not the Nurse’s lines, but Juliet’s, my eyes stung. With dignity, and with passion and pain as well, Millonzi delivers the most moving rendition of Sonya’s final monologue I can remember. She emerges as the production’s heart, the one whose feelings are as fine and as vast as any poetry can express, but who will continue to put one foot in front of the other, and to help those she loves stagger along beside her, when the world has sunk back to prose.
Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet is at the A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre through October 28.