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'Uncle Vanya' by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell

Now onstage at Toronto's CAA Theatre

Credit: Dahlia Katz. Tom Rooney as Uncle Vanya

Joe Szekeres

“A theatre dream has come back. I’m elated that this cast returns. This ‘Uncle Vanya’ piques majesty in its ordinariness.”

I had seen this astounding production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Crow’s when it premiered over a year ago. When I heard it was returning a year later (after recent performances at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius), I wanted to revisit it to see if its emotional impact still hits as hard as it did.

It still does, especially at the end. (except for that annoying cell phone alarm. Grrrr!!!)

As I left the auditorium, an audience member remarked how ‘Uncle Vanya’ sometimes seems like a comedy. That thought had never crossed my mind. I sat with it, wondering if there was truth behind it.

And there is.

Liisa Repo-Martell’s solid adaptation of this Chekhovian classic with the original Crow’s cast finely highlights those comic moments because there is so much sadness within the lives of these characters.

This Mirvish presentation deserves its singular review.

The time is the waning days of Czarist Russia. Ivan “Vanya” Voynitskiy (Tom Rooney) and his niece, Sonya (bahia watson), are doing their best to run their family estate, which appears to be in its initial decaying stage. Ivan is the son-in-law of Alexandre (Eric Peterson), a celebrated professor. We learn Ivan is a widower. Alexandre returns to the estate with his young, rather beautiful wife, Yelena (Shannon Taylor), and this visit causes the lives of everyone in the house to be changed forever.

We also meet the denizens of the family estate. There is the wise housekeeper Marina (Carolyn Fe), known as Nana. Dr. Astrov (Ali Kazmi), a local country doctor, has been called to the estate by Sonya on account of her father’s supposed gout. Sonya’s obvious growing affection for Astrov becomes noticeable as the story progresses. Does he feel the same way? It also appears Astrov carries his secret intentions at the house. Ivan’s mother, Maria (dtaborah johnson), a widow continues to voice her opinions even when she is not asked about how life is run on the estate. Ilya Ilyich (Anand Rajaram), also known as ‘Waffles’ on account of his pock-marked face, becomes the guest who shows up, stays for days, leaves, and then returns. He is a local impoverished landowner.

The plot heats up when Alexandre announces his intention to sell the estate and evict everyone.

What originally made this production at Crow’s Theatre astounding was its immersive experience. The audience walked right into the sitting/dining area of the estate. Most of the audience floor seating made me feel like an unseen guest watching the story unfold mere feet away. I could see facial expressions clearly in each character, which kept me keenly focused.

This time, I felt removed from the immediate action at the CAA Theatre. It’s comparable to a fishbowl where I watched the action from afar. I couldn’t see faces as clearly as I would have hoped since I was about half to three-quarters of the way back in the auditorium.

That doesn’t negate how powerful this ‘Uncle Vanya’ continues to be in the hands of this remarkable company of artists who know something about the art of performance.

Director Chris Abraham’s gorgeous visual staging remains a theatre lover’s dream. Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan’s co-set design is a marvel to behold. At one point, Alexandre speaks about the estate being a mausoleum. Fox and Quinlan have readily captured that ‘cemetery’ look with a stone wall back wall that rises high and towers. Astrov maneuvers a bucket into place at one point to contain water dripping from the roof. Another amusing moment happens upon Vanya’s first entrance, showing the place is falling apart.

The combination of Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound designs richly underscore several dramatic moments to emphasize the claustrophobia of the estate. Purtell’s selection of natural light beaming through the windows of the second act immediately catches the eye. That brief interlude of a warm glow remains welcome in a world that appears to suffocate as Yelena reminds the others. Ryder Payne’s selection of realistic sounds of approaching horse and carriage and an approaching thunderstorm acutely make us aware there is a world outside the one the characters know. Ming Wong’s costumes are apt reminders of the class system.

Abraham’s direction is seamless from one scene to the next. He creates fascinating characters in their ordinariness who pique interest in what they do on stage, what they say to each other, and the underlying meaning of their discussions. I’m elated that this cast returns. Their performances are amply deepened. A noted weariness emanates in their characters, stances, and walking, making the sadness of the play pierce even deeper into the heart.

As housekeeper Marina, Carolyn Fe is lovely in those moments where she hurls a one-line zinger at someone and then becomes that matriarchal figure of comfort and solace. Anand Rajaram injects a heavy-hearted gloominess into his ‘Waffles,’ who wants to feel a connection with Vanya’s family. dtaborah johnson’s Maria also provides much-needed moments of humour, but dutifully reveals the inherent sadness the others feel as the story unfolds.

As the young but dutiful wife to Alexandre, Shannon Taylor’s Yelena at first elicits compassion when she feels as if she cannot breathe within the confining restraints of the estate. However, Taylor utilizes grace and elegance to hide Yelena’s true intentions. Like Taylor's Yelena, Ali Kazmi’s Dr. Astrov has much to lose. Kazmi’s Astrov effectively uses his handsome charm around Sonya, Marina, and Yelena, and there are terrific moments to watch when this occurs. Kazmi’s final moment with Sonya is heartrending.

Eric Peterson’s Alexandre is devilishly narcissistic and cutthroat. His Alexandre never ventures over the top. As the ever-toiling Sonya, who yearns for love, bahia watson delivers a riveting performance of emotional layers in her conversation with Yelena before the end of the first act and Astrov before the play concludes. Tom Rooney continues to amaze as the central character. His Vanya subtly and carefully commands the stage one moment with heightened moments of grandeur the next. When Vanya finally lashes out at Alexandre as the truth comes out about the estate sale, Rooney delivers a masterful performance in listening, responding, and reacting with tremendous and attentive care.

Final Comments: This ‘Uncle Vanya’ most certainly deserves a second look if audience members had the chance to see it the first time at Crow’s Theatre. If this is your first time, prepare for an epic artistic feast of performers who tell a hell of a good story.

Please go and see it.

Running time: approximately two hours and 45 minutes with one interval/intermission.

‘Uncle Vanya’ runs until February 25 at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto. For tickets, visit mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333.

David Mirvish presents the Crow’s Theatre Production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell
Directed by Chris Abraham
Set and Props Co-Designers: Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne
Stage Manager: Jennifer Parr

Performers: Carolyn Fe, dtaborah johnson, Ali Kazmi, Eric Peterson, Anand Rajaram, Tom Rooney, Shannon Taylor, bahia watson.

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