You know from the moment Ilya Ilych Telegin, aka “Waffles,” starts the show off by singing and strumming along to Marvin Etzioni’s “The Mandolin Man” that The Antaeus Company’s West Coast Premiere of Annie Baker’s Drama Desk Award-winning adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya isn’t going to be like any Vanya (or perhaps any Chekhov) you’ve seen, and though I remain ambivalent about the talky Russian playwright, when the Anateus revival takes flight, it soars.
Playwright Baker* (whose fresh, original Circle, Mirror, Transformation I absolutely loved at South Coast Rep a few years back) has stated her Vanya goal as follows: to create “a version that 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.”
No easy task this, and though Baker’s adaptation often comes across contemporary (and even slangy at times), declarations like “I’m in agony” still sound just like what they are, formal 19th-century speech.
In the same way, though costume designer Jocelyn Hublau Parker has the men sporting blazers you could get at The Gap, the women often garbed in slacks, and femme fatale Yelena first showing up in a micro-mini sundress, there’s not a telephone in sight and folks still saddle up when heading away from Professor Serebryakov’s country home.
Still, if there’s anything Chekhov was, it was ahead of his time, as demonstrated in Dr. Astrov’s environmental concerns about the ongoing destruction of the Russian forests. As for Vanya’s Maman, the “old crow [is] still going on and on about women’s liberation,” something I didn’t even realize was a thing a century and a half ago.
At its best (which is quite spellbinding indeed), the Antaeus Company’s Uncle Vanya breathes new life into a script now a hundred eighteen years old (one whose synopsis can be accessed all over the Internet), its post intermission Act Three filled with enough suffering to keep a nighttime soap audience glued to their TV screens for weeks. There’s unrequited love galore, a seduction attempt leading to a passionate if one-sided make-out session, and gunshots fired (onstage no less, which rarely happens in Chekhov), all of the above combining dramatic impact and comedic flair.
On a potentially less compelling note, characters do tend to enjoy their monologs, several of the play’s dramatis personae not even needing an audience to do so, all of which puts added demands on an acting company in these 21st-century days of short scenes and rapid-fire dialog.
Fortunately, under Robin Larsen’s impeccable direction, Antaeus scores a bulls-eye in this respect (which is more than you can say for Vanya’s aim).
Antaeus’s trademark “partner casting” offers audiences the opportunity to see either “The Vixens” or “The Mermaids” on Saturdays and Sundays, or a combination of the two (“The Madmen”) on Thursdays and Fridays, the latter of which this reviewer caught in a cast made up of three Mermaids, five Vixens, and one gender-bending understudy.
Even actors interpreting the smallest roles make indelible impressions: Dawn Didawick’s folksy, opinionated Marina, Mimi Cozzens’ still feisty Maria, and above all Morlan Higgins’ sentimental, loquacious Telegin (who strums a mean mandolin, occasionally joined by understudy Alicia Wollerton as Yefim, a role usually played by a male actor, on accordion).
A lovely, intense Shannon Lee Clair is a heartbreaking Sonya, Harry Groener makes for a marvelously majestic yet self-centered Serebryakov, and Andrew Borba could not be more dynamic or charismatic as bewitched, bothered, and bewildered (by Yelena) Dr. Astrov.
Most magnificent of all are “Mermaids” Don R. McManus as Vanya and Linda Park as Yelena.
McManus makes the titular uncle much more than the poor pitiful loser he might initially appear to be, gaining audience sympathy by bringing depth, passion, and nuance to the role.
As for Park, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe the Antaeus treasure’s quicksilver work as raven-haired bombshell Yelena. Every electric Park moment seems to be happening here and now for the very first time, her mesmerizing body language (hand gestures in particular) only adding to the fascination we feel every time she’s onstage.
Scenic designer Michael B. Raiford starts the show off by lining up furniture and multiple props stage right and left, then has them take center stage in four very different, always elegant configurations, scene changes made to feel swifter by Higgins’ vocalizing under Etzioni’s expert musical direction, with Leigh Allen working her accustomed magic lighting the stage. I loved costume designer Parker’s contemporary yet timeless country wear, Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is as good as it gets, and Orlando de la Paz’s scenic artistry is gorgeous as always.
Kristin Weber is production stage manager and Matthew Sanchez is assistant stage manager. Adam Meyer is production manager. Christopher Breyer is dramaturg. Mallin Alter is assistant director.
I may still not be a Chekhov fan, but I’ve never come closer to being one than thanks to The Antaeus Company. Almost despite myself, I found myself, particularly after intermission, falling under this Uncle Vanya’s spell.
*working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina and the original Russian
The Antaeus Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
November 5, 2015
Photos: Karianne Flaathen