The best thing about “Vanya Works” at the Bowery Theatre is the acting. This Chekhov sampler, sliced out of “Uncle Vanya” by director Ross S. Wasserman, serves as a rich showcase for some of San Diego’s best.
Wasserman and his associates have sped through Anton Chekhov’s 19th-Century original in that typically American predilection for sampling the juiciest parts of something foreign and discarding that which does not lead directly and succinctly to the point--in this case, the climax of Chekhov’s slow-building play.
That means four out of nine characters have been discarded. When necessary, their lines have been picked up by the remaining inhabitants of Chekhov’s country scene. But gone are the long, languid indulgences in exposition, the slow, careful revelation of stifled personalities and interminable, self-inflicted inertia.
This is not necessarily bad--although some purists may quail at the prospect of such tampering. It is just different.
Wasserman has preserved the play’s humor and his cast delights in it. There is a certain sense of freedom in their presentation, a feeling of liberation from the ponderous weight of responsibility the term “classic” imposes. The cast’s enjoyment is infectious, as they dip freely into Chekhov’s characters.
But watching “Vanya Works” is much like eating dietetic cookies. There’s a slightly disturbing aftertaste, an indication that you’ve not quite experienced the real thing.
That may well be the group’s intention--to whet the appetite of its audience for longer evenings of Russian drama. If so, they’ve done the job well.
They have also sparked the desire to see the five performers of this expedition explore the Chekhovian subtleties further.
Wasserman has left his cast with the bare minimum upon which to build the complexities of inner turmoil that haunt Chekhov’s characters. Very near the end of “Vanya Works” comes their moment of truth, when the plain, repressed stepdaughter, Sonya (Robyn Hunt), who bears the heavy burden of unrequited love; her likewise love-stricken, despairingly stifled Uncle Vanya (J.S. Pearson), and her young, beautiful stepmother, Elyenockha (Ginny-Lynn Safford) are squeezed into a still picture on a tiny settee, forced to listen to a long-winded speech by Sonya’s self-serving, elderly father, Prof. Alyeksandr Serebryakov (Kurt Reichert).
Seconds before, a whirlwind of events has broken Sonya’s heart, shocked her young stepmother, the professor’s wife, with the knowledge that she is susceptible to adulterous propositions, and shattered Uncle Vanya’s illusion that perhaps the beautiful Elyenockha might someday be his. Their mute faces reveal all within an instant: the inner volcanoes erupting with full fury in the silence, the three characters intertwined, but painfully separated in their misery.
Reichert drones on, oblivious to their suffering, while the catalyst of all this pain, the visiting Dr. Astrov (Douglas Roberts), is momentarily out of sight.
It’s a powerful image, proving Wasserman’s triumph in reaching this climax despite the shortcuts, and leaving no doubt that this cast represents some very gifted individuals.
Roberts, as the drunken but dedicated Astrov, has his own shining moments, passionately defending his forests, sloshing around the stage with an equally tipsy Vanya, ignorantly tormenting Sonya by his indifference, or wolfishly pursuing the alluring Elyenockha. Roberts, as usual, fills out the role with panache.
Hunt is a painful package of repressed desire as Sonya. Her character suffers most from the play’s pruning, with so little explanation for why we see such a rigid, barely breathing creature. But Hunt taunts us to wonder about her by giving us the most extreme presentation of this anguish. Her performance haunts the memory.
Pearson is more explosive in his portrayal of Vanya’s constricted life. He wrings out both humor and pathos with a seeming ease.
Safford’s style is more fluid than the others’, yet she captures the ambiguities of the beautiful, bored professor’s wife. Reichert has less opportunity to evoke his egotistical character, but does well enough with what he was given.
Lawrence Czoka has contributed some nice piano and guitar melodies, but the reason for an off-stage tapping has been edited out, turning the sound into an overly theatrical distraction.
Marta Gilberd’s costumes invoke the period, while Steve Pearson’s and Esperanza Gallardo’s multipurpose set prompts one to wonder about its transparent walls and open door in the middle of a Russian September. Sean La Motte’s lighting serves well enough, except for this problem with scrims and backlighting.
“Vanya Works” showcases both Chekhov and his young interpreters with beautiful simplicity, making for a delightful evening of theatrical sampling.
“VANYA WORKS” Adapted from Anton Chekhov. Directed by Ross S. Wasserman. Set design by Steve Pearson and Esperanza Gallardo. Costume designer Marta Gilberd. Lighting designer Sean La Motte. Sound composition and design by Lawrence Czoka. With Robyn Hunt, Douglas Roberts, J.S. Pearson, Kurt Reichert, Ginny-Lynn Safford. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through May 11 at the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., San Diego.