Friday, 24 February 2017 12:23

Review: Uncle Vanya at Goodman Theatre

In 2010, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director adapted "The Seagull" by Chekhov. An all-star cast, a stellar script and unique staging made for a memorable production. For this season, Robert Falls returns Chekhov to the Goodman with a new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya" by Annie Baker. This production of "Uncle Vanya" could be seen as a companion piece to 2010's "The Seagull." There's a stylistic similarity and another all-star cast breathing new life into this classic work. 


Like any Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya" is about the everyday boredom and sadness of bourgeois Russians living on a country estate. Vanya (Tim Hopper) and niece Sonya (Caroline Neff) have toiled away their youths keeping the estate afloat and subsidizing the academic career of Sonya's aging father Alexander (David Darlow). When Alexander and his much younger wife Yelena (Kristen Bush) decide to move in with Vanya, their simple lives reach confrontation. 


Chekhov has a knack for dynamic female characters. "Uncle Vanya" is no exception. Caroline Neff's performance as Sonya sneakily becomes the focal point. Neff infuses Baker's already modern dialogue with an almost tangible sense of emotion.  Playing off her in the role of Yelena is Kristin Bush. This character is complicated and cold but Bush deftly shifts between moods without ever losing her audience. 


Adapter Annie Baker won the Pulitzer in 2014 for her play "The Flick." Her interpretation of "Uncle Vanya" was based on a literal word-for-word translation as she wanted her version to sound as fresh to a modern American audience as the original Russian had in 1900. To that end, Baker is successful. The script is quiet, but the dialogue seamlessly flows into our century. There's a timelessness to the entire production. Certain conventions, costumes and set pieces span generations, yet are of no specific historic era.  This stylistic choice only reinforces the ever-relevant themes of Chekhov's complex works. 


"Uncle Vanya" can neither be described as a comedy or a drama. There are moments of lightness and even dark humor, but overall the play is not particularly funny. On the other hand, while there's a well of unhappiness just beneath the surface, nothing truly cataclysmic happens. In the end, Chekhov makes his nihilistic point that perhaps none of us are happy and that death is the only respite we'll know. 


Through March 19th at Goodman Theatre. 170 N Dearborn St. 312-443-3800


Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 24 April 2015 00:00

Review: The Hypocrites' "Three Sisters

"Maybe it's the wanting we want" muses Vershinin in The Hypocrites' version of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters'. At once this new adaptation by Geoff Button (who also directs) is contemporary and charming. Button seems to run with them theme of supressed desires in his production that feels ever-relevant in our #FOMO world (fear of missing out).

If it's only the wanting we want, will we ever be content with what we get? Chekhov leans towards no. Perhaps disappointment is all those who dream are ever rewarded with because they refuse to live in the present. These three sisters seem to have a lot depending on their future in Moscow. As an audience we see that they make no strategic moves to achieve their dreams, which makes their longing all that much more pathetic.

Sadness is personified in color by set designer William Boles. In the first opulent scene, the set is heavily accented with purples and pinks, but when Natasha (Erin Barlow) enters the picture, her love of green brings sadness with it. In each scene as Andrei (Joel Ewing) loses a little more of their estate, a purple accent is pulled away. By the end of the play the stage is washed in green.

While the dialogue of this play is pretty morbid, forcing its audience to confront the delusions we tells ourselves in order to keep living, somehow the cast makes it a lot of fun. There's great deal of chemistry. That's not to say that the punches don't come when necessary, they're even subtle. Mary Williamson's Olga is strong, but it's really Masha (Lindsey Gravel) and Irina's (Hilary Williams) play.

Hilary Williams' outburst at the top of the second act is when the play takes a decidedly darker direction. She has a panic attack, instead of a melodramatic tantrum. Applying a diagnosable pyscological condition to this fragile character is much more convincing than most women are portrayed in literature during this period. It says more about gender inequality and Irina's anxieties than just dismissable female hysteria.

Lindsey Gravel's Masha is a real surprise here. She's sneaky, and likeable in her moodiness. By the middle of the play, her character's future is the only one that seems certain. Costume designer Jeremy W. Floyd does a wise thing by having her Fyoder (D'Wayne Taylor) hand her a green coat. It's a symbol that shows the rest of her life is going to be miserable, but what choice does she have?

Hypocrites' "Three Sisters" is the perfect production for those who fear the classics. For purists it may seem shallow, but really, who wants to sit through three long hours of people complaining? The translation is accessible and the emotions are real. The aesthetic is unique and fresh, without having to modernize it. It's important for this play to remain in a time period in which women were still considered second class citizens. Without these restrictions, we'd be wondering why the heck they don't just move to Moscow and stop whining already?

Through June 6th at Hypocrites Theatre. 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-398-7028. 

Published in Theatre Reviews



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