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Glenda Frank


"Uncle Vanya" by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lev Dodin in Russian with English supertitles.
Produced by the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg at the Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton St., NYC.
April 7-10 at 7:30, April 11 at 3 PM. Tickets $55-20 at BAM.org or 718-636-1000.

Beautiful and bored, Elena, the young wife of an elderly professor, has cast a spell on the denizens of the Serebriakov country house. Everyone is suddenly awake, filled with longings and dreams. Old family rivalries only inflame the discontent. And even she, an ice queen, is touched. Uncle Vanya, driven by passion, tries to resolve matters with a revolver, yet even point blank he misses.

"Uncle Vanya" has been fascinating directors since Konstantin Stanislavski staged it in 1900. Anton Chekhov worked on the play, originally titled "The Wood Demon," for over 10 years. Although subtitled "Scenes from Country Life," it's more often described as a tragicomedy, a concept that guided director Lev Dodin. His production at BAM is overly long at three-hours (in Russian with supertitles), but the acting is superb and the characters achieve an easy comedy and depths of emotion that make the play as fresh as though Chekhov wrote it yesterday.

When the play opens, the professor (Igor Ivanov) and Elena (Ksenya Rappoport) have returned to his first wife's estate after his retirement. Sonia (Elena Kalinina), his neglected daughter, and her uncle Vanya have been managing the farm, sending the profits to the professor for years. He used the funds to ensure a life of privilege for himself although the estate belongs to Sonia. The work is drudgery and penny-pinching, and each year their lives become smaller and bleaker. The family matriarch, Sonia's grandmother (Tatyana Schuko), is herself a great reader and a feminist, but she has no insight. She adores her son-in-law and automatically sides with him, even again her own best interests. The attractive Dr. Astrov (Igor Chernevich), who is at once an ecological visionary and an overworked general practitioner, visits the professor to cure his gout. No longer dreaming of personal happiness, he pours his energy into saving the local environment by planting forests and improving the lot of the peasants.

Elena changes their lives. Uncle Vanya falls in love again -- brings her bouquets of roses, embarrasses her with his devotion. Often he is played as mousy or foolish, but in this production he deserves his name in the title. Actor Sergey Kuryshev is a handsome bear of a man, and between Vanya's bumbling awkwardness and round-shouldered self-loathing, he permits us to see glimpses of the younger Vanya, filled with hope, believing that the years will bring rewards. Once bright and gifted, Vanya put his life on hold to further his brother-in-law's career. And when his sister died and the professor remarried and left, Vanya did nothing. Elena becomes the emblem of his lost chances.

The visit of a stepmother who is close to Sonia's age revives her resentments. When the play opens, they are not speaking. Elena continues to reach out. Their reconciliation scene is a highlight of the production. They hug with relief that the enmity is ended. Sonia confesses her love for the doctor and Elena steps in as stepmother, promising to sound the doctor and convey his feelings back to Sonia. The venture creates before our eyes a new friendship between the women, one who is vulnerable and who offers protection. It's very moving.

Then the production moves beyond the script, taking us deep in Elena's ambivalence about her marriage to an ailing man who is more than 20 years her senior. Sonia returns from the professor's room with bad news. He requests that Elena not play the piano, her one constant joy. In one sweep, she tosses all his medicine bottles off the desk. She sits and pretends to play, then rises, slowly picks up each bottle and kisses it as she replaces it. As though they were glasses filled with water, she taps the bottles to hear their note, creating a different type of music.

The most radical change is the farewell between Elena and Astrov. They embrace, separate, then as though pulled to each other, approach each other and kiss -- and from all the doors and entrances the other characters arrive to witness their passion in shock. Their longing is instantly affecting -- and close to tragedy in its impact.

Dodin does not let the mood slip. Vanya and Sonia return to their mind-numbing accounts, and Sonia's closing speech, usually recited with a sham hopefulness or resignation is here filled with rage. She is buried alive. The play becomes new. It is less about the selfish people who steal from the meek to rise but now about the timid people who hide, afraid to take risks. And the self-centered professor and his beautiful wife-- who have departed -- are life itself in all its messy splendor.

The bare stage minimalism of the set -- a polished wood platform with few pieces of furniture -- and the lovely summer costumes in an impressionistic period style allow us to enter the drama without clutter. The characters, their struggles and their impassioned outbursts fill the stage. This production is a gift for anyone who loves theatre and Chekhov!



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