Previous experiments from this adventurous theater group helmed by artistic director Eric Tucker include two versions of Twelfth Night performed in repertory, Hamlet and Saint Joan performed with casts of only four actors, and an updated Pygmalion which was double cast in its smaller roles. In Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, Tucker has tried something new: a mashup of both Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with scenes from the two alternating. The result is not confusing, but irritating and irrelevant, with neither play gaining from the combination. The advertisement for this show reads “5 actors, 2 plays, 1 performance,” but to what point?
This is all a shame as the Uncle Vanya, with a new lucid and colloquial adaptation by Kimberly Pau, and performed in modern dress with costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, is utterly brilliant. Reduced to the five main characters from the usual nine, and with four of the five actors having worked with Bedlam before, the performances and style are exactly right for Chekhov’s play. It also astutely demonstrates how a classic play can be updated to the present and can gain from the transplanting.
However, in the Romeo and Juliet sequences, the Russian-named characters address each other by Shakespeare’s Italianate names and speak in poetry to each other which seem odd coming from these people who we have first met as contemporary Russian characters dressed in today’s casual clothing. There are occasional connections between the two plays, talk of love, betrayal, dreams, death in both plays, but this seems very farfetched and at all times seems intrusive to the Chekhov which makes up the bulk of the evening. Even the style changes from the contemporary, colloquial language of the Uncle Vanya adaptation to the high-flown language of the Renaissance.
Uncle Vanya is a tragicomedy of mature people behaving badly and letting their emotions get the better of them, while Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of youthful impetuousness fueled by adult intransigence. In Chekhov’s play which starts off the evening, elderly, retired Professor Serebryakov and his new young wife Yelena have come for an extended stay on the estate of his late wife run by his daughter from his first marriage, the plain Sonya and his brother-in-law Vanya. Dr. Astrov, the charismatic local physician and scientist, is a frequent visitor. By the time the play begins, Vanya and Astrov have both fallen in love with the indolent, languid Yelena who is intrigued by the doctor. However, Sonya has secretly harbored an unrequited love for Astrov for many years to which he seems entirely oblivious.
Vanya harbors a resentment for the professor as he and his niece Sonya have worked tirelessly to run the estate so that the professor has had an income to keep up his lifestyle. During a thunderstorm, the professor calls a family meeting and suggests selling the estate and investing the money for a higher yielding income, without thought to where its regular inhabitants will live. Having been bitter about giving up his prospects for his sister and her husband all these years, Vanya loses his cool and does what he has wanted to do for years resulting in the play’s outcome. At emotional moments, brief scenes from Romeo and Juliet are interspersed with the Uncle Vanya characters slipping into the roles of Romeo, Juliet, Capulet, Friar Lawrence, Tybalt, Mercutio, Benvolio, Lady Capulet and the Nurse, often dressed in masks for the Capulets’ Ball. These moments seem more like a stunt than an integral part of the evening.
Tucker, who also directed, is terrific as Dr. Astrov, bored, inquiring, driven by both his intellect and his emotions. Both his ennui and need for work to keep him occupied are present at all times. Edmund Lewis’ Vanya is comic, discontented and perennially unhappy, all perfect qualities for Chekhov’s anti-hero. As his niece Sonya, Susannah Millonzi is insecure, melancholy and emotional, bringing this often neglected character fully to life. As Professor Serebryakov, Randolph Curtis Rand is suitably self-absorbed, egotistical and demanding, giving us reason to understand Vanya’s scorn.
Zusanna Szadkowski is offbeat casting as Yelena, the femme fatale who makes all the men fall in love with her, but surprisingly she is quite convincing in her flirtatiousness, indolence and languidness, finding the country boring after big city life. When she finally throws caution to the wind and kisses the man of her choice, it seems to be a culmination of her journey. As Professor Serebryakov, Randolph Curtis Rand is suitably pompous and self-centered, giving us reason to understand Vanya’s scorn. In their roles in Romeo and Juliet, the actors are all competent, but the snippets are so short that they are dwarfed by the Chekhov play which dominates the evening.
An uncredited on-stage guitar player adds to the play’s melancholy while the sound track designed by Karin Graybash occasionally and amusingly includes contemporary pop songs about love and rejection. As is usual with Bedlam the set design is as minimal as is possible for the storyline. John McDermott (who previously designed Bedlam’s Pygmalion, Peter Pan and Sense & Sensibility) uses Russian birch trees for the first half, and a contemporary office set for the second. With the audience sitting on four sides of the playing area at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatre, these turn out to be the correct and essential elements to allow us to focus on the actors playing out their stories. So too Les Dickert’s unobtrusive lighting stays out of the way of the actors but shifts slightly for greatest impact during highly charged moments.
Bedlam’s Uncle Vanya Romeo and Juliet is an interesting but unsuccessful experiment, with the Chekhov ultimately faring far superior to the Shakespeare. As director, Tucker’s work on Uncle Vanya is revelatory; his work with Romeo and Juliet is more intrusive than meaningful. Nevertheless, Bedlam remains one of our most audacious and inventive theater companies with some very great achievements to their credit in their six short years of producing.
Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet (through October 28)
A.R.T./ New York Theatres/Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.bedlam.org
Running time; two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission