Saturday, March 29, 2014

New "Uncle Vanya" succeeds and fails but tries admirably

Uncle Vanya's added music with Zhenya Lavy and Sean Patrick Taylor (photo by Annie Paladino)

Through April 5

Zhenya Lavy and Joseph Lavy are consummate theater practitioners. They demonstrate that in so many ways in their new production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. They have chosen an unconventional venue to mount the production. It's an old home in the Beacon Hill area that is now the headquarters for the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs. It also is an admirable choice as a stand-in for the Russian estate of the Serebryakov family.

Zhenya Lavy has made a new adaptation of Chekhov's Russian play, being a Russian speaker herself. It is quite faithful, in presentation, to what you might expect, if you have already read or seen a production. One of the most successful aspects of this production is her addition of multiple Russian folk songs with most of the actors singing and providing delicate harmonies. (While that addition is a delicious texture adding to the ambiance, Lavy might temper her desire for more than three verses of any given song.)

In the first moments of the play, while singing a folk song, Joseph Lavy enters with heavy chests and begins to meticulously unpack them into what had been a rather empty playing space. It's a riveting and theatrical moment that provides a shiver of anticipation of what is to come. Then, the play unfolds, but so does some fairly uneven acting and choices.

Joseph Lavy directs and is also cast as Uncle Vanya. One has to assume that there was no one to help him realize where his own acting choices could have been more measured, especially at the beginning, so that later on there would be more ability to ramp up the tensions to fit with the climactic moments at the end. Some in the cast are also far less used to acting, and in material as intricate as this, and in a 30-seat space more like a living room, it's easy to know that quickly.

Still, veteran actor Carter Rodriguez, as Doctor Astrov, does as good work as this reviewer has ever seen from him. Also, Sean Patrick Taylor, as a servant, is on hand, to provide some of the wonderful music, as he has in multiple other shows like at Seattle Shakespeare Company.

Zhenya Lavy, as the other servant, also provides texture via spinning real wool into real yarn on a real spinning wheel and knitting real socks. The spinning wheel provides some rhythmic sound effects that can become a kind of ticking clock or the beat of time or the syncopation of a beating heart.

They provide flashes of humor here, but much more could be wrung from the production when dialogue falters. One important addition in direction is that people in the play actually do things from time to time: real work. This amplifies the impression of a real household with normal activities to do, like taking tea.
This is not an easy play to understand or to perform. It has many layers and this production honors and provides layers and textures. While more could be done, it is still an enjoyable and theatrical evening with touches of brilliance, and gifts to the audience of Russian food and song. They give you Russian treats at intermission. But do yourself a favor: bring a cushion to pad your seat.

For more information, go to or Brown Paper Tickets or call 206-856-6925.