After 35 years of anchoring the downtown theater scene, Soho Rep is still living up to its mandate of producing bold work by brave pioneers. Annie Baker’s colloquial version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” — intimately staged in the round, with the actors performing at voyeuristic eye level with the audience — is more than a modern-dress treatment of a classic work. It’s a fresh rethinking of the material from the perspective of a modern mind. Under Sam Gold’s clear-as-a-bell helming, a remarkable ensemble revisits Chekhov’s familiar characters and breathes new life into their never-ending but forever doomed pursuit of happiness.
Aside from the traditional samovar that the old family nanny (played with a hint of sass by Georgia Engel) is constantly fussing over, there’s nothing noticeably Russian about the characters or the world they inhabit. The wooden A-frame into which the theater has been transformed for this unconventional production could be a Vermont ski lodge. The mismatched collection of beat-up furniture looks like curbstone rescues from Brooklyn Heights. And the lived-in costumes could have come out of the thesps’ own laundry bags.
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The audience is drawn into the claustrophobic universe of the drama by a tight seating plan that has everyone sitting (or squatting or jackknifed) on two tiers of carpeted risers surrounding the stage — close enough to the actors to catch every expression. Viewed at eye level, their moody displays of ennui, longing, misery and despair are too close for comfort and has the unnerving effect of dragging us to hell with them.
The key question posed here is the same as it is in any conventional production: Who is the most miserable person in the room? But Baker’s ultra-colloquial language, Gold’s super-realistic direction and the extreme naturalness of the acting effectively eliminate the protective sense of distance that a contemporary audience might normally feel about foreign characters in a historical play.
Reed Birney’s sensitive portrayal of Uncle Vanya makes his despair over his misplaced ideals and shattered dreams deeply moving. But when he gets up in the middle of the night, slouching around in his shabby plaid bathrobe and muttering to himself, his anguish suddenly becomes palpable and leaves him almost unbearably vulnerable.
Michael Shannon seems to reach into Astrov’s tormented soul when he stands absolutely still and, in an idiom as natural as any heard on a New York street corner, wearily recounts the reasons for his despair.
Maria Dizzia’s daring physical approach to Yelena, the world-weary heartbreaker whose mere presence upsets the equilibrium of the entire household, is rooted in the same contemporary sensibility.
The other performances are just as meticulously constructed from the personal responses of thesps to the characters they completely and intimately inhabit. The amazing thing is, there is nothing the least bit anachronistic about their casual gestures, contemporary voices and informal line readings. Rather, it’s as if Baker, Gold and a company of actors who have worked together enough to read each other’s minds have found a way to reintroduce us to characters we thought we knew but had never seen in the mirror until now.