EASY ACCESS In Apollinaire Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya (with John Kuntz as Vanya and Melissa Rae Roberts as Elena), the audience moves from room to room with the actors.
Guns go off in Uncle Vanya. And in Apollinaire Theatre Company's production (at Chelsea Theatre Works through January 22), the title character is one of them. Guest artist John Kuntz is a particularly scathing and volatile Vanya, as awash in self-contempt as he is in voluble disdain for the academician brother-in-law he dubs — in the vividly colloquial terminology of Craig Lucas's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 1899 play — "old fart" and "Professor Dead Brain."
Of course, Chekhov hardly needs adapting by the Prelude to a Kiss author or anyone else. And Lucas's paring can be reductive and, at times, jarring. Only occasionally does it catch Chekhov's rhythms. But the aim of the piece, which debuted at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in 2007, is to make the great Russian humanist more accessible to a contemporary American audience that might otherwise find Uncle Vanya as languid as its Elena, retired Professor Serebriakov's beautiful young wife, who awakens Vanya's disgruntled passion and the ardor of the jaded if civilized country doctor, Astrov.
At Apollinaire, director Danielle Fauteux Jacques has not only snared local favorite Kuntz but also come up with a terrific way of utilizing the former Post Office/Odd Fellows Hall that is her troupe's home. As Chekhov's play closes in on its fundamentally decent, unhappy characters, so does the production, moving to increasingly smaller spaces in the historic building. Because of this, the audience is limited to 30 people. We are like guests — or like flies on the walls of the tired country estate where the play unfolds.
The performance begins in the actual theater space. It is late summer, outdoors, where a makeshift tea table has been set up to accommodate the professor at the end of a walk. He ignores it and clomps on into the house. We remain to learn that the estate — which for years has been run by the professor's first wife's brother, Vanya, and the professor's daughter, Sonya — has been at sixes and sevens since the ill, demanding Serebriakov and his second wife have returned, apparently for good. Work and domestic routines have been disrupted, the narcotic of habit has lost its effect, and Vanya has awakened to the realization that the man he once considered a genius, and for whom he has slaved, is a fraud.
The second act moves to a parlor accessorized by wainscoting, paintings (by contemporary Russian artists), and a teacup collection. Lights in glass housings emit a glow that counteracts the growing discord between the tyrannical, washed-up scholar and his repressed, resentful relations. After intermission, we take up residence along the borders of a more formal, sparsely furnished room that serves as the reception hall where the professor's inept announcement of a selfish plan will kick off gunfire. For the final act, we retire to a cubbyhole that serves as Vanya's room and the estate office. There, following the outbursts, Vanya and Sonya must get back to the Beckett-esque business of getting on with it until death's release. Viewed this up-close and personal, and acted with heartbreaking naturalism by a toned-down Kuntz and a very touching Erin Eva Butcher, the conclusion moved me to tears.