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- Title: Uncle Vanya
- Written by: Anton Chekhov
- Adapted by: Liisa Repo-Martell
- Director: Chris Abraham
- Actors: Carolyn Fe, dTaborah johnson, Ali Kazmi, Eric Peterson, Anand Rajaram, Tom Rooney, Shannon Taylor, Bahia Watson
- Companies: Crow’s Theatre and Mirvish Productions
- Venue: CAA Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: To Feb. 25, 2024
Connoisseurs of irony will note that, while Russia remains a pariah in the West for its bloody invasion of Ukraine, now approaching its second anniversary, two Russian literary giants are flourishing at Toronto’s theatres.
Crow’s Theatre and the Musical Stage Company just extended, yet again, their exhilarating production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s musical inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And at the same time, Crow’s has also opened a Mirvish-backed remount of its acclaimed version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the CAA Theatre.
Maybe they serve as an antidote to Vladimir Putin’s cold, brutal regime, reminding us that Russia is also the land that has given us writers of great artistry and deep humanity.
Certainly, both Tolstoy and Chekhov go straight for our hearts. I couldn’t wait to revisit Uncle Vanya – which premiered at Crow’s last season in an engaging new Canadian-English adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell – and once again travel over the emotional terrain of Chekhov’s timeless tragicomedy.
Mind you, the physical landscape is a bit different this time. Director Chris Abraham originally staged the production in a semi-immersive, in-the-round style at Crow’s flexible Guloien Theatre, which made for an intimate experience. You felt like you were a guest in the sitting room of the dilapidated Russian country house where the story is set.
At the CAA, Abraham has had to re-block the show for a traditional proscenium stage and mike the actors to accommodate the larger venue. The effect now is more like watching the action through a window and overhearing its occasionally muffled dialogue.
That hasn’t stifled the performances, however. If anything, the opportunity of a remount, as well as a run at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius just prior to this one, has allowed the actors to hone them to perfection.
That’s definitely true of Tom Rooney’s riveting take on the play’s eponymous “funny” uncle, a man in the spectacular throes of a late-life crisis. He’s gone further in turning his dishevelled, clownish Vanya into a kind of unhinged, vitriol-spewing comedian, so snarky and cynical that he makes Larry David look benevolent.
It’s also true of Bahia Watson, who is luminous as Vanya’s niece Sonya. She communicates that poor young woman’s unrequited love for the charismatic Dr. Astrov (Ali Kazmi) even more palpably and movingly than I remembered.
As you may have gathered, if you don’t know the play, Uncle Vanya is awash in unhappiness. Vanya feels he’s wasted half his life running a country estate for his absent brother-in-law Alexandre (Eric Peterson), a professor he once idolized. Now that Alexandre has retired and moved onto the estate, he has come to realize the man is a pompous fraud. Worse, Vanya has fallen awkwardly in love with Alexandre’s young second wife, Yelena (Shannon Taylor).
Yelena herself is unhappy. Regretting her marriage and lacking in purpose, she slouches about the house, bored and beautiful, attracting not just Vanya but Astrov, the local physician. Astrov, too, is unhappy, a visionary environmentalist who feels trapped in his gruelling medical practice. When not drowning his frustration in vodka, he rhapsodizes about his dreams for reclaiming the fast-disappearing forests of late-19th-century Russia. Rhapsodies that a besotted Sonya can repeat word for word.
When the peevish Alexandre, tormented with the ailments of old age, decides he’s had enough of country life and makes a momentous decision, it sends the already unstable Vanya over the edge.
That famous anticlimactic climax is played stunningly by Rooney, who builds slowly from soft-spoken incomprehension to gun-wielding hysteria. He’s matched by Peterson, whose puffed-up professor can turn on a kopeck, so to speak, from suave lecturer to angry old man.
It’s only one of several unforgettable scenes. My favourite may well be the sweet one between watson’s Sonya and Taylor’s Yelena, where they patch up their differences over glasses of wine and giddy confidences. It has its raucous male equivalent when the drunken Vanya, Astrov and Telegin (Anand Rajaram), the family’s pathetic hanger-on, burst into a Russian folk song – an episode of ferocious Slavic gaiety that now looks like a warm up to the show-stopping troika driver’s number in Natasha, Pierre … (also directed by Abraham).
Drunk or sober, Kazmi is a sexy Astrov, seething with restless vitality, and his moments of furtive passion with Taylor’s Yelena could bring a samovar to a boil. I also enjoyed again the contrast between Carolyn Fe’s reassuring maternal presence as the old nurse Marina and an elegant dTaborah johnson’s maternal absence as Vanya’s perpetually preoccupied mother.
Speaking of samovars, it’s also a delight to study again the Russian period props on Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan’s superb sepia-toned set – a crumbling country house of damp walls, leaky ceilings and fogged-over windows. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design fills the air with rural music – crickets, cicadas and birdsong – in a way calculated to be by turns charming and oppressive.
Getting back to irony, after two hours and 45 minutes of unhappiness, you emerge from Uncle Vanya, oddly enough, happy. Great art will do that, especially when rendered with the sensitivity and insight of this production.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)