By Anton Chekhov * new version by Annie Baker * Directed by John Vreeke
Featuring: Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Mark Jaster, Nancy Robinette, Ryan Rilette, Eric Shimelonis, Jerry Whiddon and Joy Zinoman
This new version of Chekhov’s classic by Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens) is a revelation, bringing modern language to this timeless story of relationships and yearning. Written to create “a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions,” Baker’s award-winning Uncle Vanya reintroduces audiences to Chekhov’s enduring wit, insight, and emotional depth. It was hailed as one of the top 10 shows of 2012 by both The New York Times and New York Magazine. John Vreeke (The Lyons) directs a production that re-envisions our performance space and features Mitchell Hébert as Vanya and Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rilette as Astrov.
REVIEWS and PHOTOS: (For ALL Photos, Click HERE)
"Director John Vreeke punctuates the many long speeches with fleeting, memorable images..."
Review by Chris Klimek • April 17, 2015
The cast is the draw of Round House Theatre’s stirring new Uncle Vanya, using a recent variant by Annie Baker, the 2014 Pulitzer winner whose plays Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens were at Studio Theatre in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Silence and the clumsiness of language are big parts of Baker’s work. In adapting Chekhov’s 117-year-old opus (from a “literal translation” by Margarita Shalina), she has tried to restore the roughness that the original Russian audiences would’ve heard before the play was consecrated and canonized. (The word “creep” is used where prior adapter Peter Carson said “eccentrics,” to cite but one example highlighted in the program.)
Aside from ringers like Mitchell Hébert as Vanya and Kimberly Gilbert as Sonya, with the delightfully overqualified likes of Nancy Robinette and Mark Jaster filling out the smaller roles, the eclectic company includes three present and past artistic directors. Studio Theatre founder Joy Zinoman’s turn as Maria is her first pro acting gig in 40 years. She’s capable, as is former Round House head Jerry Whiddon as Serebryakov, the aged, egotistical professor who outsources his suffering to everyone around him. But the show’s most welcome surprise is current Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette, who’s grown a louche ‘stache to play Astrov, the country doctor who pines hungrily for Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey’s remote, sexy Yelena while Gilbert’s Sonya pines chastely for him. Rilette isn’t merely good; he’s terrific, bringing a nervy impatience and barrel-chested vitality to the part that makes the character’s ennui and resignation resonate with even greater pathos.
Set designer Misha Kachman’s rendering of the only country house is rustic and inviting: Eight thick tree stumps punch through the worn floorboards, and a suspended tarp enforces a sense of confinement. Colin K. Bills’ lighting scheme recreates the hazy shimmer of suffocating, humid nights, while sound designer Eric Shimelonis completes the illusion with his buzzing insects and neighing horses. Shimelonis and Jaster perform their impish original score live on stage on accordion and harmonica, respectively, suggesting a world of crumbling civilities not unlike the one in Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Director John Vreeke punctuates the many long speeches with fleeting, memorable images, like when he has Robinette ride a bicycle across the back of the stage. She looks giddy and uncertain, like the bicycle is the tiny serving of mirth she’ll find in a long day of labor. It’s less than a minute, but it’s as indelible as Gilbert’s sublime rendering of Sonya’s climactic pledge to endure her unhappiness “until my life comes to its natural end.”
Review by Chris Klimek • April 17, 2015
"Vreeke's blocking is so deliberate that arguments play out like choreographed dances..."
Review by Itai Yasur
Armed with a new, more relevant, adaptation by Annie Baker, director John Vreeke has pulled together a lively and energetic take on Chekov that is a hilarious as it is heartbreaking. A great team of designers and extraordinary cast has made Round House Theatre's take on UNCLE VANYA a highlight of the season.
Anton Chekov's timeless dive into the emotions of a dysfunctional family revolves around the deep seated loves, attractions and resentments that cause the unhappiness of its main characters. Set entirely in the country estate owned by Sonya, a young and lonely woman, the story follows her Uncle Vanya, who lives and works with her on the estate, as he is gradually pushed closer and closer to a mental breakdown when his pompous brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov and his wife Yelena invite themselves over to stay.
Audiences walking into the theater are immediately greeted by a breathtaking set by Misha Kachman. Sonya's country house is filled with chairs, tables, books, odds and ends. Immense and detailed, the set is as easy to get lost in as the scenes themselves. Playing with some of the show's themes, the house is invaded by trees, adding even more to gawk at. With leaves appearing on the ground in the second act, and a constantly evolving light design by Colin K. Bills, VANYA remains aesthitically intriguing throughout the night. Round House is utilizing two vomitoriums, (corridors leading from the stage to beneath the audience), which invites a lot of variety to entrances and exits, but also sometimes makes them unnecessarily long and loud. Costumes by Ivania Stack are incredibly intricate; each is a reflection of not only who the characters are, but who they want to be. Every costume change represents a point in the characters arch.
Vreeke's blocking is so deliberate that arguments play out like choreographed dances; the drama is spoken and the movements are subtle. Everything about this performance feels fresh, the very opposite of any notion of Chekov as depressing Russian melodrama. An added layer to this production is the original music performed onstage by Eric Shimelonis, who also plays Yefim, and Mark Jaster who also plays Waffles. Jaster plays harmonica and Shimelonis juggles the accordian and piano, (sometimes at the same time), creating a unique sound for this production that is completely indispensable.
Interestingly enough, the cast is full of director-actors, including Round House Co-founder and former Producing Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon as the Professor. Mitchell Hebert brings humor and wit to a very sympathetic portrayal of Uncle Vanya, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey is an unstoppable powerhouse as Yelena. Every facial expression and gesture from Nancy Robinette thrilled the audience in her turn as Marina, and Ryan Rilette, current Producing Artistic Director, as the Doctor and Joy Zinoman as Vanya's mother round out the very talented performers. And then there's Kimberly Gilbert as Sonya who is anything but plain and puts on the most heartfelt and touching performance of the production. Gilbert has a truly unmatched stage presence, and never is the audience more entranced than in the silences between her words.
Altogether, this remarkable cast, director, and design team have created a show that feels almost too funny and entertaining for its source material. Constantly refusing to be bleak, Vreeke and company have crafted a heartfelt VANYA that is true to the emotions of the play while being completely entertaining, and in the crowded field of Chekov adaptations around town this season, Round House carves out its own beautiful country estate.
Review by Itai Yasur
Chekhov’s ‘Vanya’ rides again...
Review by Nelson Pressley
Washington Post, 4/14/15
What’s the “right” way to play Anton Chekhov? With your heart on your sleeve? Morose and weepy, cued by all the fruitless yearning and bitter regret rippling through the plays? Or, because of the good doctor Chekhov’s clinical eye, distanced and funny?
But careful, now. How funny? Detached and dry? Or farcically lunging and absurd? Perhaps in the great “Uncle Vanya,” subtitled “Scenes From Country Life,” something tragical-comical-pastoral?
The head spins with options, because Chekhov’s sly and subtle plays are awhirl with all these human contradictions, and beautifully so, when they work. Adapters sometimes simplify things, taking one angle and running hard in that direction. But the comparatively “straight” approach of the “Uncle Vanya” at the Round House Theatre come across as confused and unconvincing. Its earnestness makes the characters’ ringing, eternally unsettling laments sound like ordinary gripes.
That’s despite the epic scale of director John Vreeke’s production, which does its best to fill every possible inch of the spacious theater. Misha Kachman’s inventive indoor-outdoor design features a gorgeous hardwood floor streaked with forest tones, and there are even grand tree stumps inside the country house where the unsettled “Vanya” characters idle and flirt and fight. There are no edges to this set: The huge back wall is bare and black. Characters wander in and out at the far corners of the wide stage and even through the audience.
Evocative as the design is, this environment may be too much for the performance to fill, despite one of the most intriguing casts of the season. It’s not that the acting is flat. On the contrary, it’s abuzz with snippy insults and terse outbursts, punctuated by sniffles and a few good comic digs. But the emotional showdowns and introspective reckonings rarely resonate all the way up to this big show’s expectations.
Even so, the characters get their wires and desires crossed in ways that are often interesting, starting with the moment Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey strolls across the stage as Yelena. This Yelena moves with a slow, sexy gait that paralyzes Astrov (Ryan Rilette) and Vanya (Mitchell Hébert), men who can only despair because this tantalizing woman is married to the older, ailing scholar — and Vanya’s bête noire — Serebryakov (Jerry Whiddon).
Love and lust flow the other way, too, as Yelena develops an eye for Astrov. But so does Sonia (Kimberly Gilbert), Serebryakov’s plain, hard-working daughter. The wondrous Gilbert is like a raw nerve: She acts with an uncanny ability to toggle between comic and heartbreaking, and her Sonia is fascinatingly alive with unspoken possibilities as Ryan’s Astrov drunkenly, obliviously speechifies around her.
Fernandez-Coffey also rivets attention as Yelena, a showcase role that Cate Blanchett tore through in the intensely touchy “Vanya” at the Kennedy Center a few seasons ago. She and Gilbert bond comically in the late-night reconciliation between Yelena and Sonia, and Fernandez-Coffey’s acute but indolent and smashingly dressed Yelena — costumed at one point by Ivania Stack in strappy heels and a slinky, off-the-shoulder pantsuit — is fully attuned to the wrecking-ball effect she has on men.
Hébert seems as if he has a more plausible chance with this dish than other Vanyas because he retains a debonair quality where many Vanyas have gone nearly totally to seed. He is appealingly deep-voiced and quick-witted (which could be gangbusters for Astrov), even as Vanya keeps falling into the trap of bitterly rehashing how life has passed him by. On the down side, there is a nearly unbreakable quality to this fierce Vanya that doesn’t entirely square with how the character snaps.
Rilette’s Astrov goes against the familiar grain, too. This doctor moonlights as an environmentalist with a brooding philosophical streak that makes him appealing to women. But where many actors choose cynical detachment, Rilette’s Astrov displays Vanya-like intensity with his midlife crisis — he’s a man who wants converts. You’re not sure the emotionally raw Rilette and mentally exacting Hebert are in the right roles.
The show uses the recent adaptation by last year’s Pulitzer-winning dramatist Annie Baker (“The Flick”), and although there are some linguistic eccentricities that include conspicuous use of the modern-sounding word “creep,” it feels like “Vanya” as American audiences know it. Whiddon’s Serebryakov is not a buffoon but is still a pill, and Joy Zinoman is unguarded as Vanya’s intellectual and emotional — but emotionally clueless — mother. (This is the show with all the artistic directors onstage: Rilette heads Round House, a job Whiddon retired from in 2005; Zinoman founded Studio Theatre and ran it until 2010.) Deluxe additions: the splendid Nancy Robinette in the small role of the family housekeeper, Marina, plus Mark Jaster — co-artistic director of Happenstance Theater — as a tart and put-upon Waffles, a figure in the household’s outer orbit.
Jaster’s Waffles plays a little harmonica, and Eric Shimelonis adds piano and accordion as Yefim. (Jaster and Shimelonis are credited with the original music.) But the atmosphere doesn’t quite spring the play free, and despite a lot of high emotion, the show’s straightforward passions often sail past the mark. This “Vanya” reaches high, but it looks hard.
Review by Nelson Pressley
Washington Post, 4/14/15
"Round House’s Uncle Vanya reaps what it sows in its audacious production, reintroducing and reigniting with earnest fervor Chekhov’s insightful genius to reveal hopeful moments in the midst of life’s sorrows"
Review by Gina Jun on April 15, 2015
In a funky, fresh interpretation of what Irish Theatre Magazine has called “[Anton] Chekhov’s greatest play” and hailed as one of the top 10 shows of 2012 by both The New York Times and New York Magazine, John Vreeke directs Chekhov’s newly adapted classic by Pulitzer Award-winning dramatist Annie Baker (The Flick) with a well-known and diverse assembly of DC actors in a production that creatively re-envisions and reinvigorates Round House Theatre’s performance space.
Set on an impressively accented, free-flowing, multi-functional outdoor/indoor abode, artfully designed by Misha Kachman, Uncle Vanya is a delicately blended tragicomedy about unrequited love, thwarted ambition and enduring hope surrounding a generational family who is turned upside down by the return of an elderly professor and his glamorous, much younger second wife to their rural estate.
The old professor Serebryakov (Jerry Whiddon) lives in the city but owns a country estate that is run by his daughter Sophia (Kimberly Gilbert) and brother-in-law Vanya (Mitchell Hébert). He comes to visit with his new young wife Yelena (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey). The professor is old and ailing, as is the estate, which has been overtaken by degradation. The country doctor Astrov (Ryan Rilette) shows up to care for the professor, setting in motion a series of bifurcated struggles and teetering tensions, ultimately culminating in the professor announcing his decision to sell the estate.
Whiddon’s performance as the lofty, aloof professor is respectable. Likewise, Nancy Robinette’s performance as the housekeeper Marina is soothingly sage and sensible. However, the main thrust of the play involves the triangular intertanglements brewing between Vanya, Astrov, Sophia, and Yelena.
Rilette, who is Round House’s Producing Artistic Director, plays a cool, charming and confident Astrov, capturing the fancy of both Sophia and Yelena with his unique Renaissance-man appeal atop his environmental quests and medical training. Similarly, Hébert’s Vanya attentively captures his pronounced inferiority complex towards the professor with his emotionally-charged outbursts of rage and demonstrative body gestures. Fernandez-Coffey is ravishing and acutely self-aware as Yelena, balancing the role of a sultry siren twinged with disenchantment and disdainfulness.
Correspondingly, Gilbert does a tremendous job portraying Sonya, Serebryakov’s homely, but dedicated and dutiful daughter. Mark Jaster, Happenstance Theater‘s Artistic Director, is delightfully amusing as Waffles, masterfully playing his harmonica, alongside Eric Shimelonis’ piano and accordion accompaniment as Yefim – both were fantastic in adding sheer moments of levity and lightheartedness throughout the production. Joy Zinoman rounded out the cast as Vanya’s cerebral mother.
It is no easy feat taking a 19th Century classic and revamping it to make it contemporary and relevant, but Round House’s Uncle Vanya reaps what it sows in its audacious production, reintroducing and reigniting with earnest fervor Chekhov’s insightful genius to reveal hopeful moments in the midst of life’s sorrows.
Review by Gina Jun on April 15, 2015
DC Metro Theatre Arts