Review: Uncle Vanya

by Lynn on January 14, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont. Theatre Aquarius presents a Crow’s Theatre Production. Plays until Jan. 27 2024.

Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and props co-designer, Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan

Set and props co-designer, Josh Quinlan

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Carolyn Fe

dtaborah johnson

Ali Kazmi

Eric Peterson

Anand Rajaram

Liisa Ripo-Martell

Tom Rooney

Shannon Taylor

A reconfigured Crow’s Theatre production to accommodate the proscenium stage of Theatre Aquarius with one cast change, that once again, realizes the beating heart and ache of Chekhov’s characters as they search for happiness. Beautiful and illuminating.

The Story. Uncle Vanya was published in 1898 and first performed in Russia in 1899. I think Chekhov was being cheeky when he described the play on the title page as “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts.” The play is much more than that of course. It is a look into the quietly desperate lives of people stuck in ennui and aching because of lost opportunities, unrequited love, profound unhappiness and boredom. And in Chekhov’s typical way, it’s funny.

Vanya and his niece Sonya run the country estate for Alexandre, a noted scholar and professor, and send him the money the estate makes. Alexandre’s late first wife was Sonya’s mother and Vanya’s sister. When Alexandre’s wife died, he married Yelena, a woman much younger than he was. Because the times are not as prosperous for Alexandre, he’s come to the country estate with Yelena to continue his writing of essays, articles and other scholarly endeavors that occupy his time. In the process he and Yelena disrupt the whole household.

There used to be an order to the day of those on the estate. Marina, the family’s elderly servant, was used to preparing the meals at set times during the day and sleeping at normal, regular times. With the professor’s odd sleeping patterns, he got up at noon and worked usually all night, meals were not regular. Vanya and Sonya had not attended to running the estate for fear of upsetting the timetable of Alexandre.

The animosity of Vanya towards Alexandre is palpable. Vanya feels he squandered his life in the service to this pompous buffoon. Vanya also felt he had a better intellect than Alexandre. And to make matters worse Vanya is in love with Yelena.

Alexandre is always complaining of ill health and so Dr. Astrov is summoned to come and minister to him. When the doctor gets there, Alexandre wouldn’t see him. Astrov is secretly in love with Yelena as well. Rounding out this stoical longing is Sonya, who also pines for Astrov.    

The Production. Note: This is a remount of the 2022 Crow’s Theatre Toronto production but with a restaging and in one, a recasting, but only for Hamilton.  When the production played in Toronto in 2022, the production was performed in the round, with the audience on all sides of the action. There were pockets of action that the whole audience deliberately could not see. It added to a kind of secrecy, or privacy feel to these scenes.  This remount in 2024 is presented in a proscenium theatre, we watch the action straight on. There are still lots of surprises.

Set and props co-designers, Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan, have reconfigured the main room of this manor house so one gets the sense of the size and suggested former grandeur of the estate. The rugs are threadbare and faded. A long table and benches on either side are upstage center. Presumably this is where the family eats and Vanya (Tom Rooney) and Sonya (Liisa Ripo-Martell) work. There is little furniture, except for Marina the old nanny’s (Carolyn Fe) overstuffed, worn chair and foot rest facing downstage, a small desk stage right.  Memorabilia, books and lots of stuff are placed under things or around the room etc. A chandelier hangs down from the flies. Beams are above and they are large and thick. There are double doors leading off to other parts of the house. There is a glass wall looking out to a garden and the glass is filthy with grime.  This is a huge house, now shabby.

Kimberly Purtell’s lighting gives the sense of a faded photograph of by gone times. by filling the whole space as if we are in the main room of the house.

Ming Wong’s costumes—well-worn for those who work the estate, and very stylish for Yelena (Shannon Taylor) and Alexandre (an irascible Eric Peterson) who is always in a suit to give off the impression of success. At times Thomas Ryder Payne provides a subtle hum, ‘buzz’ that underscores a speech. It’s one more aspect of something that closes in on these people as they try and endure.

Director Chris Abraham has beautifully, sensitively realized the subtle bubbling of emotions in the play—that bubbling emotion is more noticeable in this production. Chris Abraham’s direction illuminates the ache of yearning, of disappointment and lost love.

With this proscenium staging one gets a stronger sense of the ennui, boredom and despair these people experience. Performances are fuller, richer, deeper and more nuanced. One is keenly aware that Vanya is always shuffling around aimlessly just to give the sense of being busy. What he is really experiencing is crushing boredom, waiting for Alexandre to appear and the household to snap to attention. Tom Rooney plays Vanya as stooped, defeated by life and disappointment. He’s anxious, angry at Alexandre and in secret love with Yelena. When he rages at Alexandre it’s in a torrent of articulation and linguistic dexterity that is breathtaking. Vanya is ground down by life and the lack of its fullness. Brilliant work.

Characters such as Astrov (a haunted, serious Ali Kazmi) talks of how exhausted he is but can’t seem to sit down and rest (part of Chekhov’s quiet humour). I always wonder what would happen if Astrov sat down. Liisa Ripo-Martell plays Sonya in Hamilton. Sonya is industrious, efficient, an organizer. She finds things to occupy her and she moves with a purpose, although keeping her emotions secret, but only just. She is the diplomat, the calmer of frayed nerves, the one who takes charge when all else fails.

As Marina the old nanny/maid, Carolyn Fe quietly and with care, sees that the family is fed, that the samovar is always on, offers motherly affection and drink to Astrov, is always folding blankets and even when she is sitting in her chair, she’s knitting, being useful. Marina is industrious and uncomplaining while the others avoid doing anything and complain about it all the time. Chekhov is hilarious.   Abraham carefully realizes each character’s heart-ache. Scenes are never rushed. They have time to breathe and be. They linger in the air compelling us to see, feel and be aware of each character’s beating heart. I especially sensed that with this iteration of the play.

Liisa Repo-Martell’s adaptation breathes a freshness into Chekhov’s timeless play, that enhances it without distorting it. For example, at the end, as Sonya is comforting Uncle Vanya, trying to buoy him and give him hope, the frequent translation is that after they dedicate their lives to work, they will find rest (in the afterlife?). In Liisa Repo-Martell’s version, Sonya says they will ‘have peace’ which I think is more profound. More comforting. Repo-Martell’s language is both of Chekhov’s time and timeless. There is an intellectual modernity to it. And the fact that Liisa Ripo-Martell plays Sonya in the Hamilton stint adds a poignancy. It’s almost as if she is willing herself to believe in what she is telling Vanya.

Yelena is the most perceptive character in the play. She knows the secret feelings of those in the house and it’s so clear in Shannon Taylor’s playing of her. Shannon Taylor’s Yelena is full of grace. Conversation stops when she enters a room because characters are compelled to look at her. Taylor is watchful at everybody in the room. She listens to what they say and intuits how they feel. She knows her effect on people but is not destructive with it. She is bored, but won’t leave.

If ever there was a character who was pompous, bombastic and a source of hollow pontificating, Alexandre is it and he is played with wonderful arrogance, irritation and much hilarity by Eric Peterson. While Alexandre is revered by many, he’s easily defeated in an argument by Vanya who shows the hollow phony Alexandre is.  

Comment. Chekhov has said that if there is a gun visible in Act I then it has to go off in Act III. Well, there is no visible gun in this production, but it does go off in Act III (?) when Vanya attempts to shoot Alexandre. And misses. Twice. Hilarious and heart-breaking.

These characters are stuck in their misery but continue to perpetuate it. Vanya has squandered his life toiling on that estate, but he never moved to do anything else. Vanya berates Alexandre for never raising his salary in all the time Vanya has been overseeing the estate. Yet Vanya never asked for a raise either. It’s as if the characters need to suffer to feel alive. And they won’t move to change it. In a Chekhovian way, that’s funny. Stunning production, wonderful theatre. This production will play the CAA Theatre in Toronto for February, with Bahia Watson playing Sonya. I’m looking forward to seeing that too.

Theatre Aquarius presents a Crow’s Theater Production:

Opened: Jan. 12, 2024 (Snow storm? What snow storm?)

Runs until: Jan. 27, 2024.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (1 intermission)

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1 A.S January 14, 2024 at 10:35 am

Lynn, first off, I applaud you for interviewing Christopher Morris on Friday.L and thank you for this excellent review of Crows Theater’s Uncle Vanya, one of my favorite plays. I’ve recently tried to spread the good word about Chris Abraham (and Toronto theater) but maybe I overdid it by referring to him as the current “it person” of Toronto theatre m. I hope not.