Uncle Vanya

Duke Theater Studies at Sheafer Theater
Through Nov. 24

One of the strangest (and most effective) dance theater works I’ve seen in my lifetime was Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, a stage adaptation of the 1963 British psychological drama The Servant. This nonstop, hip and jazz-inflected take on the Harold Pinter screenplay swept us along on an odyssey of seduction and social change in London in the Swinging Sixtiesbut with a quantum twist.

Each of its major roles was performed not by one actor but three, who repeated, mere moments apart, the actions in each scenebut with variations in their details and, at times, their outcomes.

The effects of these cascading reiterations plunged a 40-year-old thriller somewhere between the early motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Hugh Everett’s musings on alternate realities.

Director Jeff Storer seems to have taken a page from this approach in his unconventional staging of Uncle Vanya now showing at Sheafer Theater. He’s double-cast four principal roles in Chekhov’s tragicomedythe title character; Yelena, the beautiful wife of the self-absorbed professor; Sonya, the professor’s lovesick daughter; and Astrov, the country doctor caught in the torpor of privilege and decadence.

Storer alternates the actors in different acts of the performance. Each time the actors trade places, their counterparts observe, carefully, from the shadows of the unused sections of designer Sonya Drum’s atmospheric, multilevel set. And as they do, it seems as if alternate versions of each character look in from the quantum state next door, eager to learn how their experiences work out this time.

In a work that combines elements of scene study and main stage production with more than a nod to Andre Gregory’s Vanya on 42nd Street, it’s interesting to see areas of overlap and divergence among the eight different reads presented here. Ashley Diane Long’s earthier take on Yelena contrasts markedly with Jamie Bell’s significantly cooler interpretation, which registered as one of the stronger individual performances of the season.

I question the emotional depths of Sam Kebede and Thomas Kavanagh’s looks at Vanya, even as Kavanagh’s vocal work suggests Wallace Shawn’s ingratiating, cynical take on the character in the Gregory film.

Both Nick Prey and Mike Myers evinced admirable chemistry as Dr. Astrov with the two Yelenas. Cynthia Wang’s Sonya remained somewhat more internalized than Faye Goodwin’s, who convinced in a luminous final soliloquy.

The original music, performed by Bart Matthews and members of the ensemble, add to Vanya‘s atmosphere, even if Storer’s approach doesn’t solve some difficulties usually found in university productions of the work. For instance, older characters, such as Aurelia Fava’s Maman, Vanya or Phil Watson’s shrill Professor, aren’t appreciably aged, either through physicality or by stage makeup.

Chekhov’s characters counsel us, none too gently, about the consequences of dreams deferred, inappropriate individual sacrifices and (alternate) lives spent waiting.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Bad old Europe.”