Court Theatre at MCA. By Anton Chekhov. Dir. Charles Newell. With Kevin Gudahl, Timothy Edward Kane, Chaon Cross.
Regarded by those who knew him for his humility and utter lack of pretension, country doctor–turned–short story writer–turned playwright Anton Chekhov was most likely the diametric opposite of the spoiled crank of a professor who makes everyone miserable in Uncle Vanya. The prof suffers from gout, a rich man’s disease that makes him so insufferable that his physician, his much younger trophy wife and his family who have given up their lives to support him find themselves smothered under the load of his performative ego.
Director Charles Newell’s production looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In theory, that’s a credit to the colossal, naked jungle gym of staircases and platforms designed by architect Leigh Breslau (who boasts no prior theatrical credits), although I’d argue John Culbert’s textured lighting design, which shoots spectral, glowing shafts in unexpected directions, actually deserves the praise. But with so much self-aware decadence and metatheatrical gimmicks distracting from the play itself—most garishly, the starkly lit soliloquies delivered into handheld microphones in front of the stage—it feels like a case of theatrical gout.
Newell has staged Vanya as a comedy of despair—briskly paced and drolly delivered—and this intelligent choice helps clear up some popular confusion about Chekhov’s canon. (How the heck can any of these agony fests be labeled comedies, we’ve often wondered.) Cross and Kane in particular, as the academic’s bored-beauty wife and the misunderstood doctor who almost trysts with her, take notable strides as performers and aid this lightness. But Newell’s breakneck speed leaves little room for digestion, and his tendency to let his production spill out aggressively into the aisles and his actors swing around on poles while delivering their lines lets you know that he, rather than Chekhov, is in charge here. A daring directorial perspective is always appreciated, but if it doesn’t enhance our understanding of the play, it’s tough to justify.—Christopher Piatt