By Jennifer Cayer
By Anton Chekhov
A new version by Annie Baker
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
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
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
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.