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Larry Litt

"Uncle Vanya"

"Uncle Vanya"
By Anton Chekhov
Directed by John Knauss
New Translation by Moti Margolin
Adapted by John Knauss and Moti Margolin
The Space 300 West 43rd St., 4th Floor NYC
Reviewed on Dec 20, 2008 by Larry Litt

How awful the idiocy of rural life. But how full character and scenes, abundant pains and fleeting pleasure. Whether centered in turn of the 20th century Russia or America's myriad suburbs, exurbs and out-theres, the rural frustration hits a high percentage of any population that falls into routines of work, church, television and sleep. Until the 'high falutin' city folk come to visit.

Chekhov's small farm Russians and their nemesis Herr Professor Alexandre are alive and not living well in Moti Margolin's new translation of Chekhov's tragicomedy. Mr. Margolin successfully brings contemporary vernacular into a household of characters full of internal conflicts. His onstage portrayal of Vanya, the servile yet outspoken and sarcastic farmer/brother-in-law of Herr Professor carries this tale of a mismatched family like a dray horse pulling a plough. Without him it's a lot of blather. Throw in Vanya and anything can happen to the traditions and forms that keep these rurals sane.

The root cause of the play's action is the arrival at the farm of Herr Professor Alexandre, played with sickening academic pomp by Luis de Amechazurra, and his young, very attractive wife Elena. Lil Malinich's waveringly frustrated Elena was an odd counterpoint to Her Professor's daughter Sonya. While Elena is the play's glamorous temptress, Sonya is the plain, inexperienced country girl who can't find love. Problem for me was that Sonya, played with pathos and giddy depth by Claire Siebers, is actually a beautiful and vibrant woman whose portrayal didn't physically ring true. When a character talks about how plain she is and feels, they should look the part. Elena evoked my sympathy, Sonya simply glowed with youthful desires easily fulfilled. When both were onstage it was hard to keep one's eyes off Ms Siebers rather than Ms Malinich.

Today Vanya hates himself. Moti Margolin has a deep understanding of self hatred and what it does to tragicomic characters. They can't do anything right. Chekhov puts his personal loathing of the country into the mouth of Dr. Astrov for whom life has frozen except for his plagues and environmental concerns. Jared Houseman plays him as a frustrated sly ingrate and opportunist. That Chekhov was a country doctor before leaving for Moscow and the theater is always a point in this play. He knows whereof he complains.

Nurse Marina, strongly acted by Dolores Dev Rogers, convincingly anchors the doctor and the rest of the cast. She is the soul of traditional Russia--uneducated but happy, living with a good family, making sure everyone has some comforts in this hard life. She lights the samovar, knits scarves, reinforces their domesticity, brings them back to cruel reality.

In contrast is Telegin, a miserable mooch living off the family since he sold them this estate. His presence reminds us of the downfall of the extravagant landed gentry before the Revolution. Larry Greenbush plays him with due subservience as a man trying to maintain some little dignity while entertaining the family in its misery.

At any moment the household can collapse into chaos. It's why "Uncle Vanya" has remained a character laden classic. I always secretly hope Vanya and Sonya will break the incest taboo and find happiness in each other's arms. Meanwhile the central cause of their distress still lives in the same house. Chekhov blames Vanya's mother Marya who first worshipped Herr Professor and the status he brought to the family by marrying her daughter. Although she is a minor character in Margolin's version, sternly and sarcastically played by Aysha Quinn, she looms large in the original production at the Moscow Art Theater. Often mother's are unwittingly the cause of their children's despair. Chekhov was well aware of this as he pointed out that rural Russians were too accepting of their familial fates. Only a revolution could release them from Mother Russia. For a short time it did.

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