Uncle Vanya 2: Electric Boogaloo

When director Sam Gold spoke about his radical (and to mind my startlingly electric) staging of Look Back in Anger, he said he wanted to get away from every play just being staged on sets that looked like people's living rooms.  I could not help but feel that despite staging Uncle Vanya in the "round" with a raw attic-like ceiling it felt a bit like he'd done exactly that.  With the actors in contemporary dress (costumes designed by translator and adaptor Annie Baker), a plush beige carpet, a mishmash of antique furniture and modern phrasing, this Uncle Vanya felt physically planted in today but Gold's choices for this production kept pushing it artificially toward the unfamiliar.  

After the enlightening and practically perfect Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya last month, it is hard not to compare the two.  The Soho Rep production is notable for its bold choices in staging and direction (some which work and others which do not) and a revealing, smoldering performance by Michael Shannon. 

It has been a season of fantastic productions staged in the round with Tribes and Cock using that format to specific and creative effect.  With Cock, the playwright called for an arena shaped stage.  With Tribes, it created tension where you could not see and hear everything, mimicking to some degree the struggles the deaf character was experiencing in his life.  Here, I found the staging in the "round" with the audience remaining lit for parts of the show worked only part of the time.  More often it worked against the text (It's also a little distracting when it's Jake Gyllenhaal sitting across the room from you).  

For some reason, Gold opted for a distancing monotone delivery by the actors.  Stripping the play of human emotion, did not reveal textual poetry.  Instead, the translation emphasized awkwardness.  This awkwardness became the comedy, but the humor felt cruel.  The comedy was at the expense of the characters (whereas I would argue the Andrew Upton translation from Sydney made the characters painfully aware of the dark comedy of their situation—no one was laughing at him more than Vanya was laughing at himself).  

My thick-skin of skepticism was hard to shake in this show.  The monotone made the characters sound as if they did not believe what they were saying. This disconnect might have been effective if it helped to reveal sub-textual motivations.  If we had learned of their inner struggle despite outward appearances then it might have been appealing.  Instead, taking away the emotion meant we just got their lines and no way of knowing if they felt those things or not.  I thought this choice denuded the play of much of it's power. 

The direction was painfully static and I struggled with this choice but upon reflection it worked.  By having the characters take one position and speak without much activity at all, it mirrored how stuck and bored they were in their lives.  But it also meant later when characters did take physical action, the effect of that was explosive.  When that stasis was broken, it felt like a tremendous release. 
All of a sudden the production shifts when Astrov drunkenly takes off his pants (yeah yeah Michael Shannon wearing boxer briefs—discuss).  But it feels like this is the first time any of the characters have broken out of their rut.  Astrov comes alive and I tip my hat to Gold for having this work with the text.  Sonya walks in on Astrov in his pantsless state and he excuses himself to go “put on his tie.”  It was a funny directorial choice that married the more traditional text and the contemporary setting well.  

The play came alive when the lights went down. The characters got drunk, the actors loosened and the audience was mostly dark.  It was then that this play felt more like you were inside an independent film.  For this portion of the show, the intimacy of the "round" worked.   The scene between Astrov and Sonya, where she asks him to stop drinking, became a lot more erotic and charged than it had been with the Sydney production (which was brightly lit and where Astrov was more bombastic and excitable).   Sonya’s teenage moment where she moons over Astrov happened to be played out about two feet from me where she shyly buries her face in the wall.  It was then I realized with a camera you could capture these small reactions.  But on stage it was a moment I got to see but I’m imaging others across the room were denied the intimacy I was experiencing.  

I found my allegiances shift toward Astrov over Vanya in this production.  Reed Birney's Vanya came across as whinier and more petty than Richard Roxburgh's.  I had little sympathy for him at the beginning and little vision of the world he lived in and the dreams that passed him by.  He was angry but not vulnerable.  I did not believe he had been a man of promise.  I did not trust him.  Whereas, Michael Shannon's Astrov was more serious, grounded, and direct than Hugo Weaving's Astrov.  He was painfully honest at all times in this production.  From his physical appearance, where he  describes himself as having  "a big mustache and no aptitude."  To how life has turned him into something he does not want to be:  "I've become a creep."  Speaking of his own disappointments and his inability to see the future he says "I have no light in the distance."   All the tragedy seems to be his.  

Yelena refers to herself as feeling like a “minor character in a play” and here she is that.  She is not the catalyst who changes all their lives as Cate Blanchett was in the Sydney production.   She is petty and selfish and childlike but what she wants is a lot more opaque here.  She and Astrov have their moment of honesty and passion.  But Maria Dizzia’s Yelena does not create the kind of seismic shock that Blanchett did.  The lives of everyone on the estate have been turned upside down the Professor and Yelena.  They say it over and over again but you don’t feel it.   

I kept thinking that you have to believe that Sonya and Vanya have hope that their lives will change for the tragedy to play out as tragedy.  But as staged and with this adaptation, Sonya and Vanya feel impotent to change at the beginning and the same at the end.  One of the reasons the Sydney production resonated with me was that that loss was so palpable and profound.  There were select moment’s of Merritt Wever’s performance as Sonya that I liked but I struggled more than I should have with her.  I was never won over by Birney's Vanya and it made the play fall out of balance for me.  His emotional breakdown at the end was less effective because I had not felt for him at all until that point.

Gold’s production leaves the audience to fill in so many emotional blanks.  He does not make anything easy for you.  It goes without saying that the actual seating employed was physically painful.  I guess a bed of nails would have been worse.  The seating forces you sit cross-legged (lest you knock the head of the person sitting front of you off with your legs).  This leaves everyone to shift and move as their limbs fall asleep.  With the light on the audience, and everyone having to adjust at some point (for the record audience member Blythe Danner just took off her shoes midway through the performance), it becomes a part of the play.  But Gold overstocked on discomfort.  His production offers quite a lot of challenges without ever needing to reach the physicals ones.   Rather than keep people awake and engaged, the discomfort sheds too much light on the audience's own state of being rather than bringing the audience into the play.  

But when the Professor complains of the gout pain in his legs, I could relate.