Sergey Kuryshev and Ksenya Rappoport
in Uncle Vanya
(© Viktor Vassiliev)
Sergey Kuryshev and Ksenya Rappoport
in Uncle Vanya
(© Viktor Vassiliev)
The Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg is providing an illuminating, and sometimes even revelatory, staging of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, now in a brief run at BAM's Harvey Theatre. Director Lev Dodin uncovers not only what theatergoers have always known is inherent in the classic play -- a warm, yet sometimes bittersweet humor that's mixed with a keenly felt sadness -- but also some tantalizing new insights into characters that have become exceedingly familiar to seasoned theatergoers.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the production is Sergey Kuryshev's robust, and rarely melancholy, take on the title character, a man who has spent his life running the farm which was his late sister's dowry and which now provides the chief source of income to his brother-in-law, an erudite and pompous professor (played with uncommon regality by Igor Ivanov).

Vanya drinks excessively throughout the play -- and often mentions how unusual this is -- but one senses that this might be a lie that the man tells himself and that he is a long-term alcoholic. This impression is first felt early on when his mother (a luminous and uniquely strong-willed performance from Tatyana Schuko) comments that he might have done something with his life. Here, one senses the weariness that she feels with his seemingly perpetual boyishness and aimlessness. Along with Kuryshev's hearty, almost overgrown teddy bear-like turn, this interpretation recasts a central figure in classic drama.

The professor, along with Elena (Ksenya Rappoport), his much younger second wife, has retired to the country estate and their presence has thrown the denizens of the estate into chaos. Not only has Vanya become smitten with his brother-in-law's wife; so has Doctor Astrov (Igor Chernevich), who's frequently called to the estate to tend to the professor's myriad maladies. Meanwhile, Astrov remains totally oblivious to the deep love that Vanya' niece Sonia (Elena Kalinina) feels for him.

Rappoport opts to deliver a full-bodied, somewhat wizened turn that's filled with surprising humor, and often, the show's biggest laughs come from her unexpected line-deliveries (even in the supertitled Russian) and behavior. Similarly, Kalinina eschews sweetness in her portrayal of the generally idealized and angelic Sonia, and instead, crafts a woman of intensity and shrewd self-awareness. Chernevich cuts a dashing figure as Astrov and brings a passion to the role, both of which belie the theoretical debilitation he suffers from his own excessive drinking.

Dodin's production is filled with carefully thought-out details. When Sonia and Elena bond late at night while sharing a glass of wine, the latter woman continues to drink despite the fact that she finds the drink appallingly distasteful. The comedy in this sequence, and Elena's progressive tipsiness, leads to an astonishingly touching moment between the two women as their long-simmering animosity disappears into the ether.

The action unfolds within the confines of David Borovsky's abstracted environment: a trio of hay stacks, along with an illuminated clock which cunningly signals the creeping of time for the characters, hover above the action. The design, lit masterfully by Igor Tupikin and Ekaterina Dorofeeva, makes the claustrophobia the characters complain about palpable, and puts the performers' carefully observed work into gorgeous relief.