August 17, 2011
When there’s a month with a fifth Wednesday, I’ll be heading Way-Off-Broadway for a look at theatrical happenings outside New York City. Given the limited run of one of the shows in this post, I’m bringing you the report early. (Not to worry; Theater Buff will appear next week.)
Washington, D.C. is hot…and not just because of its traditional swampy August weather. In the last six months, two shows that originated or were produced inside the beltway have announced Broadway transfers (Follies and the Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). The Studio Theatre’s Venus in Fur got a jump on the upcoming Broadway version with rave reviews. And two major works (discussed below) have made D.C. a hot ticket destination as not just our Nation’s Capital, but as a capital of regional theater.
Last weekend, I hopped aboard Amtrak (with my beloved train wine) to see if the talk is on target or the usual D.C. hot air…
Uncle Vanya, Sydney Theatre Company: Extraordinary. Don’t read another syllable; just click over to the Kennedy Center website now and see if there are any cancellations, random singles or “unfortunate” computer meltdowns that have revealed new tickets for this Aussie import (playing through August 27). Or call and sweet talk the box office manager. I’ll wait…Got ‘em? Good. Now, let’s discuss…
This production of Anton Chekhov’s masterful comedy/drama (about a middle-aged man discovering he has given his life to support the ephemeral work of his professor brother-in-law) reminded me why I love the theater; it touches something deeply personal and intensely humane, while being insanely entertaining. With one screen goddess/Oscar-winner (Cate Blanchett), an Oscar-nominee (Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver) and two bona fide film leading men (Captain America’s Hugo Weaving and Moulin Rouge’s Richard Roxburgh), you expect acting pyrotechnics — and you get them. What you don’t expect to get is enganging, emotional, cohesive ensemble work, but the Sydney Theatre Company is true to its name; it is a company, seamlessly (and unselfishly) working together. These actors feel like a family — rambunctious, fractious, each character tied to every other person on stage with finely tuned strings, all the better for tugging and twisting. Each knot is specific and alive at all times, whether the characters are front and center or not.
Much credit must go to director Tamás Ascher and his beautifully balanced work. Careening from tears to slapstick, it never feels like he chose to accent either the comedy or the drama in his take (as often happens with Chekhov) but let it be everything simultaneously — messily, vibrantly human. In particular, his pacing of the first act, while it seems slow to start, is canny because it allows us to get past the initial, distraction star-gazing (and believe me, Blanchett is just as gorgeous and ethereal as you imagine her to be) and, with every awkward pause and swatted fly, settle into the people on stage.
I could go on about the generous, full-bodied performances but I’ll let one detail suffice; the way each character reacts to vodka is wonderfully funny and astutely particular. Never generically drunk, the characters’ inner lives are magnified and, at times, set free in stunning detail by knocking back a shot (or two…or three). Weaving’s Astrov does a sexy, joyous lunge of a Russian dance. Roxburgh’s Vanya inflates and deflates like the sad clown of a silent film. Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya is struck dumb with adolescent paralysis and unspeakable joy/fear. And Blanchett’s Yelena hilariously bubbles and coos as she searches for a place to settle. Intoxicating.[…]