I have seen many productions of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya over the years but am not likely to ever experience one with such intimacy as I did recently at Soho Rep in New York. It was an amazing evening of theatre.
Hamlet and Uncle Vanya are my two desert island plays. They serve me as inspiration, pleasure and a standard of achievement that I can only scrabble toward. (I think with these desert island games there are supposed to be three items. I’m not sure what my third can’t-do-without play would be. Maybe Waiting for Godot; could be good while stalled on an island.)
As configured for this Vanya, Soho Rep’s small theater only holds about 80 seats. Though “seats” isn’t quite the right word as there are two levels of wide carpeted benches with pillows that you more or less stretch out or scrunch up on. Yoga practitioners will fare better than the rest of us. The tiny performing area, maybe 20×30 feet, abuts these benches. The set design features open rough rafters that suggest a farmhouse, which is where Chekhov’s play occurs. I sat on the lower bench and when I put my feet on the floor they were in the performing area. In fact late in the play a lamp was brought out and plugged in between my feet. I watched the last part of the play worried that my leg would dislodge the plug and I’d plunge the unhappy Russian household into total darkness. (I’m pleased to report that I avoided that faux pas.) At times I had to move my feet out of the way of actors moving across the “stage.”
With good productions of Chekhov you don’t so much observe his characters’ lives as you do accompany them in their lost-ness and suffering. His stories and characters are a magnet and you, the audience member or reader, are metal that ends up attached to the characters. You are there, breathing beside them in their mostly unhappy lives. Chekhov’s ability to bring you in is part of his genius.
And the genius of this Soho Rep production is that it extends that aesthetic power of Chekhov to the space that contains the actors, characters and the audience. For example, in the scene depicted in the accompanying photo I sat/reclined less than six feet away. For the life of this production you are all literally in this together.
Because of my love affair with Chekhov and knowing when I would next be in NY, I bought my ticket to this Vanya well before the play opened. Tickets are now a hot commodity. The play has been extended through July 22, and likely to be extended again. Charles Isherwood in the New York Times just gave it a rave. (I wonder how Isherwood, who is a lanky guy, fared on those benches.)
The script was adapted by Annie Baker. Sam Gold directed. The immersive set was designed by Andrew Lieberman. The acting was uniformly top-rate. I wonder what it feels like for actors to perform in such an intimate space. Is it more like an actor’s studio class for them than a formal performance?
This production will remain with me as a highlight of my playgoing life. I was fortunate to see it. Thank you Soho Rep and all involved.