Sweet Russian Misery
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Sweet Russian Misery

2008_06_14Vanya.jpgTheatre in Toronto doens’t get much better than the current Soulpepper remount of their successful 2001-2002 production of Uncle Vanya, on at the Young Centre until Saturday.
With solid performances by Albert Schultz, Joseph Ziegler, William Webster, and Diego Matamoros as the evuncular Vanya of the play’s title, here’s a Chekhov that positively hums in its harmony with contemporary life. Characters get hurt, get drunk, get heartbroken, get abused, get kicked out, and keep repeating the same cycles (sort of like us, actually). Set in a turn-of-the-century Russian outpost, there is a timeless feel to the design (by Michael Levine and Victoria Wallace), and a claustrophobic quality to the lighting (by Kevin Lamotte) that reminds one of long winters, short days, and why that vodka bottle looked so good in the first place.
Uncle Vanya opens with sheets of rain coming down a white scrim. No refreshing shower is this, but a messy thunderstorm that is a symbol of the characters’ heavy, bogged-down lives. Professor Serebriakov (Ziegler) is married to Elena (a sensuous Kristen Thomson), who is beloved by both Vanya and Dr. Astrov (Schultz); Astrov himself is beloved by Sonia (Liisa Repo Martell), daughter from the Professor’s first marriage. Before you can say ‘nasdarovia’, there is desire, longing, and heartbreak, but not in the corny way you might expect. Hungarian director Laszlo Marton has crafted a beautiful meditation on the nature of human relating as told through Chekhov’s words, and never once does the dialogue (translated by John Murrell) sound forced or maudlin.
Part of that magic comes from the delivery, and it’s such a treat to see many of the leading Soulpepper-ers onstage together, playing off of their obvious chemistry and artistic compatibility. In the title role of Vanya, Matamoros is deeply moving; he maintains a meticulous balance between the character’s frenzied anger and his quiet sadness, swinging from giddy to hopeless with equal conviction. As the disaffected country doctor, Schultz balances both awkwardness and passion, contrasting his immense physicality and screamingly masculine presence with moments of touching vulnerability and openness. Joseph Ziegler’s Professor is all arrogant, intellectual superiority one moment, and self-pitying, isolated martyr the next. The high-wire act of balancing the intellectual with the emotional isn’t easy, but the cast manage it effortlessly.
Showing the same sensitivity and understanding of Chekhov’s work that he brought to Three Sisters and Platonov, Marton envisions the world of Uncle Vanya as a stage upon which Chekhov’s characters are not merely acting out fictitious scenes of melodrama, but are mining larger issues that bear direct relationship to the audience. Environmental themes are particularly timely, as the threadbare nature of the set, and the strained, difficult relationships between characters are expertly used as metaphors to underline the theme that planetary and personal destruction go hand-in-hand.
You’ll laugh (honestly, Chekhov can be funny), you’ll cry (obviously), you’ll think about your life in a whole different way. Get thee to the Young Centre, and quickly.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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