Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is one of the three greatest plays by that Russian master. Of the three, Vanya has the most volatile subtext and continues to command our attention more than a century after it was first performed. In fact, it has enjoyed something like high vogue over the last few decades. Vanya also invites various adaptations, with self-appointed co-authors and directors often switching its locale from dreary rural Russia to other parts of the globe where ennui reigns – and such places are not hard to find.
In his Vanya adaptation, popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn set the action in England’s Lake District, while another production, staged Down Under, transported the characters and all their emotional baggage to the Australian Outback. The 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street presents the play in the wrapping of a late rehearsal, sans costumes, in the theatrical heart of New York City.
One of the more highly acclaimed novels of this year is Our Country Friends by Russian-born American author Gary Shteyngart, a work that evidently uses Uncle Vanya as its inspiration but allows its characters to play out their discontent in rural upstate New York.
And zombie lovers needn’t feel left out: a theatre in Honolulu actually mounted a show called Uncle Vanya and Zombies, about how actors can handle Chekhov after the zombie apocalypse hits Hawaii.
Now, Philadelphia can boast its own reworking of the classic, courtesy of the Wilma Theatre. Minor Character (subtitled Six Translations of Uncle Vanya At The Same Time) keeps the play in the Russian countryside, late 19th century, but is a radical deconstruction of Chekhov’s play.
This version takes key elements of the Chekhov original and gives them an imaginative makeover. This is meta-theatre at its meta-est. The script – originally crafted by New Saloon, a New York-based group – stitches together pieces of six different translations of Chekhov’s original into English. It then splits characters into different parts, so that one scene may give us three different Yelenas or Vanyas speaking slightly different lines to three different Astrovs or Sonyas.
The effect is tonic. Watching this show is like being in a large chamber filled with overlapping echoes, each one playing against the others in a way that produces a persuasive harmony which gives Minor Character its unique quality.
For instance, in the scene where drunkenness is shared like a redemptive sacrament, we can feel the inhibitions that ruled the characters’ lives crashing to the floor as rich bursts of joy start rushing through the assembled group.
The scenes – or rather, the nubbles of scenes – are presented in chronological order as they appear in the mother text. But there are many key moments that have been jettisoned along the journey. I strongly suspect that if you were not quite familiar with the intact version of Uncle Vanya, you’d find yourself confused by some of the goings-on in Minor Character.
Ultimately, this production represents the primacy of theatre over drama. What I mean there is that what Minor Character gains by its splintering text and character, it loses in some of the emotional punch Chekhov packs his play with. For instance, as this text does not follow along the tight path of the original script, we lose much of the heartbreak of Sonia’s unrequited love for Astrov. Also, the moment when Vanya goes mildly berserk and chases after Serebryakov, firing his gun wildly, loses its odd inevitability as well as its sense of comic futility. In Minor Character, Vanya’s dangerous outburst seems gratuitous.
The Wilma cast is superb, and if it wasn’t superb, this show would most likely have spun into sad failure. They brought great energy to their performance and handled the problem of timing – clearly the most challenging problem in a show such as this – well.
This was an ensemble performance in its truest sense. Actors switched roles as easily as they might switch parts of their costumes. In fact, roles were switched more often than costumes. As a result, we were treated to seeing an actor playing Vanya in one scene, then taking on the role of Dr. Astrov or Waffles in another scene, maybe switching between Yelena and Sonia, and then on to Marina or Maria. The role-swapping even crossed gender lines: our Vanya in one scene would appear as Sonia in another scene, while Sonia in one scene might do a turn as Astrov in a later scene.
The only cast member who didn’t switch roles was Keith J. Conallan in the role of Professor Serebryakov. The other cast members (in alphabetical order) were Ross Beschler, Sarah Gliko, Suli Holum, Justin Jain, Jered McLenigan, Campbell O’Hare, and Lindsay Smiling.
I list the cast alphabetically because every single one contributed significantly to the success of the production. I don’t want to imply that any one actor in the ensemble was any less effective than anyone else, or that standouts threw the others into shadow. As already noted, the energy and the timing of every person on stage was first-rate. Director Yury Urnov, himself a Russian, also clearly deserves a chunk of that praise for seeing that the energy remained high and the excellent timing came off so well.
I enjoyed almost every minute of Minor Character, but I am a bit of an insider: I’ve worked in theatre in various capacities and have often done a deep analysis of dramatic works, which typically involves dissecting a text. If I didn’t have that background and didn’t come in with a knowledge of the original play (in translation), would I have enjoyed this show as much? I doubt I would have.
One thing is clear to me: I would have enjoyed, would have found much more fulfilling, a strong, well-acted production of Uncle Vanya in its original version than I found this deconstructed take on Chekhov’s classic. But I am nonetheless grateful that I was able to experience Minor Character and its inventive handling of a classic.
A filmed version of Minor Character will be available to stream on demand from Oct. 25-Nov. 7.
The Wilma Theater
265 S. Broad Street
Broad & Spruce Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Box Office: 215-546-7824