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'Uncle Vanya' by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Liisa Repo-Martell

Now onstage in the Guloien Theatre at Crow's Theatre

Bahia Watson and Tom Rooney. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Joe Szekeres

An astounding adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell of Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ that remains firmly riveted in my mind.

Not merely just to see but to experience an opening night of Liisa Repo-Martell’s new version of Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ is one of the reasons why we must continue attending the theatre.

Again, I confess that I’ve not seen a live production of ‘Uncle Vanya’, but I briefly knew the story. But when a play hits me on many emotional levels, I want to share and encourage everyone to attend this ‘must-see production’.

Chris Abraham and Liisa Repo-Martell’s Programme Notes spoke about how sometimes the “opening up of dormant dreams, passions and ambitions is risky because sometimes we must risk everything to get something new.” Abraham has majestically captured a truly stunning vision of this statement in his risk-taking about the “telling of the truth of the lives of these characters – just as they were” when we meet them.

There appears to be something uniquely different about this world of ‘Uncle Vanya’ upon entering the Guloien. When we do, we’re instructed to go either left or right depending on the colour code of our ticket.
And as I saw the world created inside the auditorium, I felt my jaw drop as if I’d experienced something sacrosanct. Those in front of me appeared to feel the same as we tried not to cross the sacredness of the stage.

It’s not a traditional proscenium arch setting for this ‘Uncle Vanya’, and that was a wise choice by Abraham and co-set designers Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan. We are in a theatre in the round which magnificently captures how grand this estate must have been in the waning days of Czarist Russia. The actors always make tremendous use of the entire stage, and never, ever does it look as if they are crowding in one spot. Instead, I always felt as if I was that proverbial fly on the wall watching with anticipation what was playing out before me.

Kimberly Purtell and Thomas Ryder Payne’s lighting and sound designs gorgeously reflect the era and the historical moment in which we find ourselves. Purtell’s soft lighting designs nicely reflect the glow of the oil lamps used throughout. Ryder Payne’s richness in sound design magnificently underscores the tension within the scene. The growing sound of the impending storm caught my ear so many times and I kept wondering when the heavens would open it. And when it finally does, breathtaking to hear. Ming Wong’s costume designs splendidly reflected the muted earth-tone colours of the era.

I’m reminded of the line “Attention must be paid” from ‘Death of a Salesman’ and, once again, Fox and Quinlan have done just that in the selection of many noteworthy period piece props from a Victrola to the fine bone china right to the gorgeous chandelier suspended over the stage. Before the performance began, my eyes scanned every inch of that stage noticing so many of the intricate details of the set dressing that I encourage future audiences to do the same.

Ivan “Vanya” Voinitsky (sublime work by Tom Rooney) and his niece, Sonya (a passionately emotional performance by Bahia Watson) toil ceaselessly to run the family estate. The arrival of Sonya’s father celebrated and retired professor, Alexandre (a fervently ardent Eric Peterson) returns to live on the estate with his young and glamourous second wife, Yelena (believably vulnerable and grounded work by Shannon Taylor) which adds turmoil and conflict to this group of those gathered because we so learn she does not love the older man.

We learn about the lives of other individuals on this estate. Carolyn Fe is a matriarchal Marina who offers solace and comfort, especially to Sonya in intense moments. We also meet the handsome country doctor Astrov (a gallant performance by Ali Kazmi) whom Sonya has secretly adored for quite some time but never feels validated because she considers herself homely. It is in Astrov’s opening comments in the play that he recalls his first visit to the region when Vera Petrovna (Alexandre’s first wife and Sonya’s mother) was still alive. As Astrov, Kazmi heartfully reveals his selfishness regarding life in this part of the country as boring and dull and he doesn’t have time for anything including love and affection. Astrov has appeared on the estate to treat Alexandre’s painful gout.

Upon Alexandre and Yelena’s arrival at the estate, we also meet Maria (dtaborah johnson), Vanya’s mother who clearly has issues of her own to deal with but manages to provide brief moments and bits of humour. And there is Telegin nicknamed Waffles on account of his pockmarked face. I found there to be a great sadness enveloping him, and Anand Rajaram steadfastly infuses the character with great gusto. The one believable yet sad moment of humour he does provide with Astrov occurs in their drunken stupor where they begin singing a ditty which brought applause from the opening night audience.

I’ve always wondered why this play is named after Vanya. Tom Rooney’s sensationally staggering portrayal amply explains why. Vanya is more than just a sad sack of a man. Here is someone who truly envelopes that strong sense of lethargic unhappiness because he cannot have the one thing he wishes he could have in his life – namely, Alexandre’s wife, Yelena. It is this same sense of unrequited unhappiness that envelopes each of the characters. For example (and it isn’t Vanya) one of the characters asks another if they are truly happy, and the response from that character is a definitive no. That was then I knew why the title is an apt one.

There are many moments in the production where the chemistry between the actors is electrically charged and a sight to behold in watching, listening and in hearing. As mentioned earlier, the drunken scene between Astrov and Waffles is a tour de force comic moment. Another occurs in a dream sequence dance movement between Tom Rooney and Shannon Taylor upon Vanya revealing his true feelings for Yelena and she rebukes them. This moment made me hold my breath as I watched two individuals inherently trust each other in their graceful swanlike rhythm intertwining of body and soul.

I will only share two examples (although there are more) of what I will call a master class in acting pivotal moments. One occurs in the extraordinarily painful look of rejection of Bahia Watson’s Sonya as she learns Ali Kazmi’s Astrov does not feel the same about her as she does. The silence between the two and the heartbreakingly realistic look within Watson’s eyes in realizing the truth becomes achingly real.

The other moment occurs at the end of the play when a quietly sobbing Vanya turns to Sonya in the realization that this life of unhappiness is all that they will ever know or attain. I felt my jaw drop as I was witnessing such remarkable delivery of regretful poignancy which tore my heart in two.

Final Comments: A story of intense impassioned magnitude told with gut-wrenching honesty, this ‘Uncle Vanya’ deserves to be at the top of your list to see and to experience. It is an evening at the theatre I will never forget.

I’m reading more and more about Critics’ Picks in the theatre industry.

This is one of my picks.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

The production runs to October 2 in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Nest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, call (647) 341-7390 or visit

UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekhov in a new version and adaptation by Lisa Repo-Martell
World Premiere
Directed Chris Abraham and Assistant Director: Lisa Repo-Martell
Set and Props Co-Designers: Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne
Stage Manager: Jennifer Parr

Cast: Carolyn Fe, dtaborah johnson, Ali Kazmi, Eric Peterson, Anand Rajaram, Tom Rooney, Shannon Taylor, Bahia Watson.

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