Uncle Vanya, Maly Theatre, BAM, NYC

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The Company of <i>Uncle Vanya</i> (photo by Richard Termine)

The Company of Uncle Vanya (photo by Richard Termine)

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
Maly Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music
Directed by Lev Dodin

With Igor Ivanov (Professor Serebryakov), Ksenya Rappoport (Elena), Elena Kalinina (Sonia), Tatyana Schuko (Madame Voinitskaia), Sergey Kuryshev (Vanya), Igor Chernevich (Dr. Astrov), Alexander Zavyalov (Telegin Ilia), Vera Bykova (Marina) and Alexander Koshkarev (Servant).

Time passes so slowly in the Maly Theater’s production of Uncle Vanya, as souls pace the width of a sparse, unforgiving stage, that tensions and grievances dissipate into the ether, or else sink like dead weight. For characters flush with passion on the hottest day of summer, the air is cool and still with inertia. Astrov, the gentlemanly country doctor, is perched in a rocking chair and looks out, waiting. His face registers a smirk, then falls blank. In a sensitive performance by Igor Chernevich, he is calm and refined, revealing weakness and contempt beneath a layer of real gentleness. He has no mannerisms or peculiarities, nor is he a type. He is a person rather than a creature, one who revels in silence but happens to speak in achingly beautiful Chekhovian Russian. This production bares its soul when it just lets its characters be, enunciating the language, allowing itself to breathe and become suspended in the byt, the banality of everyday existence.

And yet…two scenes in, monotony takes hold and one begins to feel the conspicuous distinction between naturalism and the absence of strong creative choices. In the pursuit of starkness and simplicity, the production becomes languid, loses its sense of rhythm and becomes a kind of melancholy art installation. Notably, this dejected quality in no way obstructs the vitality of the language, and it draws focus toward the actors’ mastery of the speech, colloquial and powerful in a single breath. But the story never gathers steam because of some leaden and charmless central performances, striking in their severity but lacking in nuance. As played by Sergey Kuryshev, Vanya is a brash and grimacing man with wild eyes and restless arms. Rough and physically imposing with floppy hair and a tensed-up jaw, Mr. Kuryshev wears his desperation on his sleeve and ends in the same demented state in which he began. There’s much to be said for playing Vanya as an overgrown child, panicked and dangerous as he throws his weight around, but Mr. Kuryshev’s interpretation is just too broad and chafes against every other performance. Even as he soliloquizes about past regrets, it’s hard to see shadings of self-awareness amidst the generalized pain.

Mr. Kuryshev’s physicality finds some compelling moments in his scenes with Ksenya Rappoport as the stoic Elena, the young married woman Vanya pines after. As the drunken, sentimental Vanya professes his love and all but paws at her, Elena doesn’t mince or soften her rejection with smiles and evasions. She unceremoniously shoots him down, as though she has no patience for drama. Ms. Rappoport defrosts somewhat and has moments of tenderness with Igor Ivanov as her ailing, misanthropic elderly husband Professor Serebryakov. For the most part though, she remains stern and guarded, an anesthetized presence who is difficult to like. Similarly, Elena Kalinina as Sonya, the dutiful niece caught between her sympathy toward Vanya and infatuation with Astrov, is strangely austere and curt, though she makes a striking figure, with wavy hair that seems to extend to her ankles. She is so businesslike that her vulnerability seems like an affectation, as though preoccupied with receipts, inkwells and bales of hay, she never learned how to express emotion to begin with.

The performances don’t feel like they were developed collaboratively, and they don’t contrast with one another in cohesive dramatic ways. Perhaps that’s a liability of the Maly’s repertory system, in which actors join and depart from productions periodically over the course of years (this one originated in 2003). Some are more arresting than others; in addition to Mr. Chernevich, whose thoughtful presence and diction do much to enliven stagnant scenes, Alexander Zavyalov as friend of the family Telegin has a genial, understated humor and quietly exudes humanity. Vera Bykova as the ancient family nurse who comforts with food and Christ has maybe the most idiosyncratic dialect in the original, and she is age-appropriate, which just feels authentic. This production’s realist tone, with the exception of Vanya himself, makes every other version seem stylized and emotive, but it is also sometimes less poignant and precise. It feels half-formed and a tad perfunctory, which may not be surprising, considering that the Maly company, directed by Lev Dodin, typically performs over a dozen plays a month in rotation. I wish they treated Uncle Vanya with a little more imagination and care, not merely as one worthy Russian classic among many but as arguably the greatest masterpiece of modern drama.

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