Chekhov redux (again)

A glowering Uncle Vanya at the Theater Project in Brunswick
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  February 6, 2014

 theater_vanya_main

TENSE TABLEAU A gorgeous set underscores household preoccupations in Annie Baker's adaptation of
the Russian classic.

The boredom is crippling on the Russian country estate of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but so is the roiling of unrealized desires. The Theater Project, staging a new adaptation of the Chekhov by Annie Baker, convincingly captures the torpor, though the desire is sometimes muted, in a production directed by Christopher Price.

The remote dacha, where Vanya (Payne Ratner) and his niece Sonya (an earnest Kate Kearns) have for years worked the family land, is spacious and airy in Price’s characteristically gorgeous set. Upstage is a tall grid of pale wood and small platforms that hold the books, bottles, and medicine vials that show the current preoccupations of the household. Behind it stand the slender birches of the forest so beloved by the doctor Astrov (Craig Ela), who has been drinking hard since the arrival of the aging, arrogant Professor (David Butler) — Sonya’s father and the widower of Vanya’s sister — who’s brought his new, younger wife Yelena (the fine Abigail Killeen), the object of love and/or lust of both Astrov and Vanya.

As the tensions develop, the Theater Project’s large three-quarter round proves well-suited to a series of nicely blocked tableaux. Characters gaze and glower at each other from various angles amid the dusty wine-colored carpets and faded upholstery, as when Yelena, Vanya, and Sonya all stare silently downstage as the old nurse Marina (Maureen Butler, with wise affection) slathers the ill, petulant Professor with the pity that none of them can or will offer him.

Yelena complains of boredom and the toxic wrongness of the house, and in Killeen’s hands, her own boredom and toxicity are a turbid, active force of disgust at her surroundings and herself. Killeen has a knowing decadence in her voice, the loose, irritable sensuality of her body, and her sour, languid mouth. The household Yelena enters does have the static stupor that drives her batty — filled with silences and low, measured delivery — but the production falters in showing what’s being stirred up underneath. As Vanya and Astrov, Ratner and Ela banter in voices often passive, dry, and barely inflected. Such delivery, slowly paced, is sometimes appropriate to their despair, but overuse dulls our sense of their internal shifts, and shortchanges their arcs. Their climactic scenes do deliver — Ela’s wryness is pointed and energized when he calls out Yelena on her attraction to him, and Ratner’s rage, when the Professor proposes selling the estate, is arresting — but more nuance and tighter pacing would better develop and sustain their characters.

Meanwhile, the adaptation by Baker (the much lauded author of Circle Mirror Transformation) seems to want to naturalize the language for a modern audience. But there are inconsistencies in diction — Astrov makes much of calling people “creeps” (as opposed to “commonplace and queer”), while worker Waffles (Justin Boss) still calls the Professor “Your Excellency” without apparent irony — that kept me ever unsure of the era and ethos. Similar confusions carried over into costumes. In one scene, Yelena wears leggings and an oversized denim shirt, and later a 1970s-style floral shirt-dress, while Waffles’ cap and the Professsor’s classic suit suggest a time earlier in the century. Marina perhaps synthesizes eras in a leopard-skin print and classical black shawl, but overall the spread is a little bewildering, and sometimes distracted from the show’s wrenching unfolding.

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