Richie Coster, Lynn Cohen, and Peter Dinklage
in Uncle Vanya 
(© Stephanie Berger)
Richie Coster, Lynn Cohen, and Peter Dinklage
in Uncle Vanya
(© Stephanie Berger)
A number of funny things happen in Erica Schmidt's production of Uncle Vanya, now in the midst of a two-week run as part of Bard College's SummerScape Festival, just one sign that the director has a good understanding that Anton Chekhov's masterpiece is not all gray skies and glum tragedy. But the "funniest thing" that happens in this visually striking, often bracing, contemporary-set production about an extremely unhappy Russian family is that the title character -- played by the actor (and Schmidt's husband) Peter Dinklage -- ends up becomes a supporting character in a work that should seemingly be retitled Doctor Astrov.

The decision could consciously be the director's, for at one point in the late Paul Schmidt's modern translation, Astrov (the sensational Richie Coster) tells Vanya that "you're just the comic relief here." Indeed, Dinklage's often effective performance focuses heavily on the more laughable (and pathetic) aspects of the character -- taking full advantage of the actor's "mouse-that-roared" delivery -- than the perpetually depressed worker who's sacrificed all his aspirations. However, Dinklage does nicely capture Vanya's overwhelming despair, especially his unrequited love for Yelena (the striking if uneven Taylor Schilling), the moody young wife of his pompous ex-brother-in-law Alexander (well played by Robert Hogan), who has commandeered the family's dacha.

Still, the production lies firmly in the hands of Coster, who brings an earthy sexiness (and enticing British accent) to Astrov, the country doctor and environmentalist whose constant presence further upsets the household's fragile dynamic. Moreover, his chemistry with Schilling -- who resembles a younger, taller Jessica Lange -- can be felt at the back at the theater; so much so that you almost root for them to run away together. Conversely, there's no spark at all between Astrov and the young, innocent Sonia (an inconsistent Mandy Siegfried), whose desperate, impossible love for him seems all the more pitiable.

While Schmidt doesn't fully explore all of the play's themes as well as one might wish, she has layered the production with a number of intriguing contemporary touches; for example, Yelena first enters in a near-transparent silvery sheath and listening to an iPod (further adding to the impression that she's perhaps meant to be a fashion model). In addition, there's an ordinary tea kettle monitored by Marina (the droll Lynn Cohen) instead of a traditional samovar, and the family's living quarters include a never-used old television and a radio -- turned on frequently by family retainer Waffles (Robert Langdon Lloyd) -- that at one point plays a snippet of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

But the director's true stroke of genius was commissioning Mark Wendland to design the extraordinary set. It is dominated by a low ceiling (to create the requisite feeling of claustrophobia), is lined on all three walls by peeling wallpaper with a forest pattern, and, above all, features all of the family's furniture crowded together in the upstage, house-right quadrant, while leaving the rest of the vast Fisher Center space empty. David Weiner's lighting is equally smashing, and Michelle R. Phillips' less-than-flashy costumes do the trick.

Given the frequency with which Vanya is produced, one is always grateful for a production that brings something new to the table, even if the end result occasionally make you long for the more tried-and-true.