For a first-time stage designer, architect Leigh Breslau makes a startling impression with the set of this visually unusual, intriguingly frantic “Uncle Vanya.” The massive, architectural set consists of angular, metal stairways held up by cylindrical poles and, within the theater space of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, certainly looks like a work of sculpture — striking but cold and gray and not especially pretty. It resembles not a bit the Russian countryside in which the play is set, except for one extremely important fact: It feels vast and lonely and you wouldn’t want to live there. Vanya’s expressions of despair at being stuck in this place have rarely felt so credible.
Under the inventive direction of Court Theater a.d. Charles Newell, the actors treat Breslau’s set like a jungle gym. They lie on the platforms that break the space into levels, jump all over the stairs and landings, even stand up and balance themselves on the railings.
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For Kevin Gudahl’s Vanya, the most agitated figure among a bunch of restless ones, this really works. Gudahl clearly and convincingly builds Vanya’s angst, and the fact that the show barrels ahead without an intermission helps put this on full view.
He starts out like a smart man whose growing regret and isolation have made him slightly eccentric. But after being rejected by the gorgeous, distant Yelena (played with compelling elegance by Chaon Cross), who then discovers her attraction to the younger, more dashing Astrov (Timothy Edward Kane), Vanya really does lose it, launching himself with a good deal of abandon down part of a staircase. Head first.
In most productions, when Vanya tries to shoot his brother-in-law Serebriakov (James Harms), we suspect he’s not really trying that hard to hit him. Here, Vanya takes aim for real and seems genuinely disappointed when he misses.
For the other characters, the combination of the big, dominating set and frenetic activity doesn’t play out quite so well, through no fault of the uniformly excellent actors. Cross and Kane find plenty of layers in their mutual attraction, and Elizabeth Ledo hits all the right beats of the perpetually rejected Sonya (although she just can’t convince us she’s as unattractive as we’re told she is).
But the performers battle to defrost the setting’s chilliness, against which Chekhov’s intense individual heartaches get easily lost. The physicality occasionally assists in this regard, but there’s too much of it throughout. At times it does become self-conscious and fussy, distracting from rather than enhancing the emotional goings-on.
To deliver several of Chekhov’s soliloquies, the actors step forward and grab a microphone, not unlike the teens who break into song in Broadway’s “Spring Awakening.” Like the set itself, this choice grasps Chekhov as a modern writer who can bear strong directorial stylings and presents the characters in ways that make them feel emotionally exposed. But somehow, as of the production’s opening, this approach feels hesitantly executed — interesting but neither illuminating nor involving.
Nevertheless, it’s not easy to reveal new angles in such a frequently performed play, which this production certainly does. Breslau and Newell deserve credit for boldness.