HOTREVIEW.ORG - Hunter On-line Theater Review
By Jennifer Cayer

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
A new version by Annie Baker
Soho Rep
46 Walker St.
Box office: (212) 352-3101


A padded room can mute the squawks of a music lesson or the cries of someone out of control. At the transformed Soho Rep it is the cozy retro atmosphere for Annie Baker's adaptation of Uncle Vanya, a play much about misfires and frustrated desires. Beige medium-pile carpet covers the floor, walls, and wide risers where audience members sit cross-legged around three sides of the central playing space. Enclosed within the unfinished wooden beams of a house, bare skylight windows are cut out of the steep eaves above, and giant backlit Cyrillic letters spell "Vanya" along one wall. The set is at once a home abandoned mid-construction, a musty vintage parlor, and self-conscious performance space. It evokes the strange temporalities at work; we're not in 19th-century Russia, nor are we in the contemporary U.S, but we're meant to feel completely at home. Nestled into a theater-fort for grown-ups, we rest back onto pillows and imagine helping ourselves to a cup of tea from the samovar.

What is it about Vanya these days? In April 2012 Target Margin's David Herskovits premiered his collaborative postmodern take on the play and in July 2012 Andrew Upton's Sydney Theatre Company production, starring Cate Blanchett, opens as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Baker's Vanya is set in an attic, or the place where things that we no longer need but can't imagine living without end up. Perhaps this is her view of Chekhov's play. If so, Baker takes Vanya down from the rafters, dusts it off, and aims to reintegrate it into our living space. Baker's is not an updated Chekhov, but an attempt to unearth, through the original grammar, cultural references, and slang, a version that (as the prologue explains) "sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play's first productions in the provinces in 1898." The text adheres closely to Chekhov's original with several lines that zing out, like Nanny's "we're all god's moochers" and Yelena's theatrically self-conscious "I'm like a minor character in a play" (another translation I consulted has "I'm a tiresome, inconsequential person").

Part of the fun in Baker's reworked script, Sam Gold's direction, and the impressive ensemble cast is that while some lines feel like bold contemporary rewrites, we're also reminded that Vanya does in fact tell Yelena that she has "mermaid blood" flowing through her veins. Astrov's bleak refrain about life as a long journey surrounded, in one translation, by "crackpots" until you too become "odd," is re-translated by Baker and delivered in a deadpan manner:

Yeah, and for what it is, life is pretty boring and stupid. You're surrounded by creeps, you spend all day hanging out with creeps, a few years go by and little by little, without even realizing it, you become a creep yourself. It's unavoidable.

As outmoded crackpots become contemporary creeps, Baker revivifies Chekhov's language and her colloquial version delightfully restores much of the humor that can become obscured in headier translations.

It's no surprise that Baker was drawn to adapting Chekhov. Her award-winning plays (Body Awareness, which premiered in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company directed by Karen Kolhaas, Circle Mirror Transformation directed by Sam Gold in 2009 at Playwrights Horizons, and The Aliens directed by Gold in 2010 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater) share a Chekhovian attention to minutiae and miscommunication. The plays, all set in the imagined town of Shirley, loosely based on her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts and other small towns in Vermont, present scenes of country life including intimate glimpses into the home of a university professor and an adult community drama class. Both Baker and Chekhov demonstrate a fascination with the limits of language and its simultaneous capacity for cruelty and connection in everyday interactions.

While Baker pokes gentle fun at the liberal-leaning, small-farm friendly types who call the pastoral town home, her plays are not satires, offering easy laughs at precisely rendered types. Baker, like Chekhov, is preoccupied with our reliance on others for self-recognition and the ways in which we can serve as safe or dangerous witnesses for one another. Performances within the performance, like Jasper and KJ's songs in The Aliens or theater games in Circle Mirror often denote sudden transformations, ratified by a benevolent onlooker. A few interludes in Vanya are filled with woozy renditions of Russian folk songs, and the professor's refusal to allow a momentarily exuberant Yelena to play the piano resonates against the crucial role of performance for Baker's characters. We wield tremendous phenomenological power to positively mirror or distort one another's existence to serve our own needs. Unlike Vanya's lament over the professor's tyrannical hold on his life, Baker's characters often manage to find glimpses of fulfillment as they see and feel themselves through the eyes of others.

Vanya opens with one of Baker's signature long silences. She insists that The Aliens is nearly one-third silence and these protracted minutes offer occasion to feel the texture of time and the resonating capacity for change or inertia each of the characters possess. Nanny knits and we hear Astrov biting his nails over the ambient chirping of birds. For the audience, these silences also initiate a shifting awareness from the show to the self-as-watcher. Sustained lapses in dramatic action suture the temporality of the show to that of the spectator. It helps, too, that the production lusciously attends to the sensory space--the shared texture of the carpet, tiny pastry crumbs falling from fingers to a plate, the crisp bite of a pickle. With the production over two and a half hours, Baker and Gold are less interested in satisfying a shortened theatrical attention span than with re-creating the lethargy of a drawn out summer day.

For those unaccustomed to sitting on the floor for long periods of time, the discomfort can become distracting. The in-the-round staging also offers its own obstacles and opportunities. When Astrov shares his map of the district's shrinking forests over time, commenting that he can tell by Yelena's face that she has lost interest, one audience member complained in a too-loud whisper, "I can't even see her face!" Conversely, Sonya and Yelena quietly conspire, propped against one of the steps, heads reclining right next to audience feet. The intimacy of the space and the mini-arena staging are crucial to what Baker is up to. The staging emphasizes the role of coincidence for some of our most intimate connections, as well as the inevitable obstructions to fully recognizing one another. As in Baker's other plays, loneliness and alienation are based on fundamental misunderstandings, but so too are some of our most personal connections.

Baker and Gold built their Vanya around actor Reed Birney as the caustic and long-suffering titular character. He dons New Balance sneakers and a knit sweater while Nanny fetches shots of vodka in gray orthopedic shoes (Baker herself was the costume designer). Ever-drab Sonya wears jeans and a plain loose t-shirt while Yelena's repressed sexuality is aptly represented by a push-up black bra visible beneath a sheer cream sweater. Michael Shannon's Astrov, rumpled and world-weary from the outset, speaks as if he's watching himself from a point in the future with quizzical and effortful attention. The exchanges, especially between Vanya and Yelena, sound like an old and familiar script, a well-rehearsed and choreographed dance that has been performed one too many times. Similarly, in Baker's original plays, pre-existing scripts for human expression from songs, prayers, and stories often serve as the available, and only, templates for action. Transitory releases from well-worn and painful narratives are found in the slight modifications that we're able to make in the stories we repeat and tell about ourselves.

Vanya's characters, however, reckon more with the pain of enduring a script they didn't write and cannot change. Vanya, clutching a vial of morphine, can't imagine how to continue living whereas Baker's drama instructor in Circle Mirror invites the motley class to start again, and by the end one character has imagined new and future lives for her and the others. The magic of this production is the way in which it plays up the scriptedness of the characters' lines and lives, and the sense that these precise words have been and will be said hundreds of times again without feeling stagnant. The eruptions of Vanya's volatile breakdown, Yelena's flight, and Sonya's quiet confession of love, emerge as all the more affecting. And, the brief instances when characters break pattern are played up in thrilling ways. Off the wagon and stumbling up into the attic, Astrov rips his belt off and playfully whips Vanya before he collapses in a drunken heap and removes his pants entirely. Sonya later finds them and slowly reaches into each pant leg, pulling them right side out in a sweet and subtly sexual act. Sonya and Yelena's midnight reconciliation crackles with the energy of a teen slumber party in which the liquor cabinet is raided as long-time grudges subside and secret crushes are revealed.

Set and lighting designers Andrew Lieberman and Mark Barton create a stunning visual after the upheavals of the professor's intent to sell the estate, Vanya's misfired gunshots, and Astrov's thwarted seduction. As the scene opens, an unprecedented level of bright light pours down through the raw skylights, illuminating the lighting grid like moonlit branches. Light in Chekhov's Vanya radiates from within someone or offers the prospect of safety and respite. Astrov asks:

You know when you're walking in the woods on a dark night…and you see a light shining far off in the distance…and you think to yourself: even though I'm tired and it's dark and the branches are scratching my face…everything's gonna be okay…because I have that light? And I'll get there eventually?

The appearance of light, for the first time, from outside of the house presents a sign of such hope or at least refuge against the dismal losses that conclude Vanya. The majestic effect also suggests the beauty found in a uniquely theatrical construction of nature. Unlike Astrov's romanticized and diminishing forests, this moment is utterly contemporary in its evocation of a necessary splendor found in an artificial proxy for nature. We are no longer in a position to entertain the doctor's binary of an authentic nature versus societal and industrial development. Our current predicament is to recognize the corrosive, often invisible effects of our developing and quickly discarded technologies on the very notion of a pure or untainted nature. The fantasy, rendered in Astrov's map of clearly delineated regions of natural land and civilization, only fills our time, which will continue apace until some imaginary border is finally encroached.

The show slowly recedes back into the night and the habitual rhythms of Vanya, Nanny and Sonya's labors. Held together now by soft lamplight, the three resume familiar positions as Sonya comforts Vanya with the repeated promise of rest after he survives the years between age 47 and death, the months between September and winter, and the ruptures left by sudden departures. Baker's Vanya is neither a reverent period piece nor a present-day variation. We are situated comfortably among these characters, and yet uncomfortably reminded that we have not become, as Astrov predicts, the "people who look back and laugh…because we lived our lives so foolishly and tastelessly. Maybe those people will have found a way to be happy." We have not fulfilled such hopes for an accumulated wisdom and over 100 years later we remain the same creeps obsessed with personal gain, half-heartedly reckoning with environmental degradation, devalued labor, and the day-to-day challenges of making sense of our desires through the refracted lenses of others. In the safety of the soft, cocoon-like attic, Baker brings us closer to Chekhov's insomniacs, drunks, and self-pitying creeps so that we may laugh with them, and at how far we've not yet come.