“For what it is, life is pretty boring and stupid. You’re surrounded by creeps, you spend all day hanging out with creeps. A few years go by and little by little, without even realizing it, you become a creep yourself.”
So says the terminally world-weary doctor Astrov in the opening act of Annie Baker’s electric adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” now playing at the Shaw Festival through Sept. 11.
These lines would sound equally at home in a Radiohead song or a Noah Baumbach film. They contain much of the enduring insight and appeal of Chekhov, that emo-est of Russian playwrights, who pulled endless strands of meaning from the meaninglessness of it all.
Jackie Maxwell’s superlative production of “Uncle Vanya” is the opposite of what many of us have been conditioned to expect from Chekhov. It is not an overwrought and depressing night at the theater that leaves you awash in accumulated misery, longing for a strong cocktail and an episode of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to ease the pain. Rather, it gives you a sensation that seems more in line with the American optimism of Thornton Wilder – whose “Our Town” is now playing down the street – albeit by a very different route.
From its first lines, Baker’s adaptation snaps this tired script back to attention. To be sure, the Russian master’s writing still drips with ennui and melancholy. But Baker’s zippy sensibility and keen ear for contemporary humor jolts the characters into a new context, infusing the playwright’s searing insights about human nature with new power.
The story, of course, is the same: On a weather-beaten estate in a degrading region of rural Russia, Vanya (Neil Barclay) and Sonya (Marla McLean) entertain the estate’s visiting owner, the professor Serebryakov (David Schurmann), and his beautiful second wife, Yelena (Moya O’Connell). Into this already toxic storm of melancholy and longing walks the alcoholic doctor Astrov (Patrick McManus), who out-ennuis the entire bunch. His perspective fluctuates between feigned enthusiasm and outright despair, depending on how much he’s had to drink.
This is not exactly a recipe for a riotous night at the theater. But that’s just what it turns out to be in the first two acts, when Chekhov’s sardonic humor comes across with perfect clarity. The booming Barclay is rarely better than when he utters the play’s most sarcastic lines, whether they concern his own duties as caretaker of the estate or his disenchantment with the work of his doddering patron.
“For 25 years,” Barclay’s Vanya declares about the old professor in one characteristic outburst, “he’s been writing about things that intelligent people already know and stupid people aren’t even interested in.”
Theatergoers will want to get all their belly laughs in during the first two acts, because much of the play’s humor dissipates by halftime. After that, it’s one despairing soliloquy and conversation after another – each one somehow more affecting than the last. In these exchanges, Barclay and McManus show their formidable chops against O’Connell’s own aching performance as the lusted-after Yelena.
It is much to Maxwell’s credit that she has maintained such a pleasant pace throughout the production, which could easily become bogged down by the weight of Chekhov’s subject matter. Her skill at setting both the speed and tone of the production is especially apparent in the musical interludes that bracket each act like morose commercial breaks, as an estate worker (James Daly) sings a mournful tune while rearranging the furniture. She also included a gorgeous tableau toward the end of the first act, a scene of languid beauty in which the estate’s residents and visitors sit in silence as the ancient Telegin (Peter Millard) strums his guitar.
Sue LePage’s set does its work with unobtrusive grace, as does Rebecca Picherack’s lighting design, which gives Maxwell’s first-act tableau just the right patina of artificiality. Against Maxwell’s nicely constructed backdrop and through Baker’s updated language, Chekhov at the Shaw sounds just as sharp and contemporary as anything you might find on Netlix or HBO. Just as sharp, but twice as moving.
3.5 stars (Out of 4)
Drama presented through Sept. 11 in the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call (800) 511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.