NEW YORK – The only theater in New York City to commemorate the 150th anniversary of playwright Anton Chekhov’s birth in 1860 was the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), which last month presented Russia’s distinguished Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg in a stunning production of “Uncle Vanya.”
Directed by Lev Dodin and performed by an all-Russian cast of nine, with English subtitles, this “Uncle Vanya” turned out to be a production of rare beauty, simple and exquisite in its playing and profoundly moving, while often hilariously funny. It was a near-perfect production of one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.
“Uncle Vanya” is basically Chekhov’s take on a group of disillusioned 19th-century Russian aristocrats (i.e., lost souls) living on the estate of a retired, arrogant professor, Alexander Serebryakov (Telegin Illia), who has come back with his young wife, Elena (Ksenya Rappoport), to write his masterwork. Other members of the household include his young daughter by his first wife, Sonia (Elena Kalinina); his first wife’s mother, Madame Voinitskaia (Tatyana Schuko); and her brother, Uncle Vanya of the title, a pathocomical character, here played with great sensitivity by Sergey Kuryshev.
Another character, Astrov, a visiting country doctor, is one of Chekhov’s great original characters. He, like the rest of the lot, is jaded, a faded intellectual who is appalled by man’s inhumanity not only to man, but also to nature. Today, Astrov would be considered a “green” character, probably inspired by New Age enviromentalists.
In one of the play’s greatest speeches, Astrov explains with passion what the trees and the forests mean to people, who despoil them. As the play progresses, Vanya becomes increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with the professor’s airs of inimitability. In the play’s frantic, climactic scene, Vanya chases the old professor around the house, firing two shots, but is unable to hit him. Once again, Vanya must chalk up another failure in what he considers a wasted life of defeats.
That pretty much sums up the essence of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which, like most of his major dramas, demonstrates with a quiet irony that most men and women of good will are apt to be comical, or even ridiculous, even when they rouse themselves in a crisis to act.
In the end, the professor and his young wife leave the estate, as does the doctor, and life for Vanya and his niece, Sonia, resumes its weary pace. The genius of Chekhov, like that of Shakespeare, lies in how his works reverberate today, showcasing how little mankind’s behavior has changed over the centuries.
BAM should take a deep bow for presenting such works of world drama as “Uncle Vanya,” which most New York theater enterprises, both commercial and nonprofit, choose to ignore. In taking such risks, BAM consistently presents the finest, most intellectually stimulating and most entertaining theater there is.
BAM is currently presenting, through May 16, August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” adapted by Scottish playwright and director David Greig and directed by the film and theater actor Alan Rickman from London’s Donmar Warehouse. Information and tickets are available at www.BAM.org or (718) 636-4100.