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Under the Radar 2019: Chekhov Gets a Major Reworking in Minor Character

This riff on Uncle Vanya mashes up six different translations and casts multiple actors in the same role.

A family gathering in Minor Character, a rejiggering of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Public Theater's 2019 Under the Radar Festival. Note the three Yelenas in furs.
(© Elke Young)

Every script is a universe of possibilities, and with each performance, one of them is realized. Actors choose how to deliver a line, the director decides where they go onstage, and the costume designer determines how they're dressed. But what if no one had to choose? What if there were multiple actors playing the same part in different outfits at different locations onstage? That's the question explored by performance troupe New Saloon's Minor Character at the Public Theater's 2019 Under the Radar Festival.

As terrain for its exploration, the troupe has chosen Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov's 1897 tragicomedy about a family languishing in the Russian countryside. To enhance the house-of-mirrors effect, New Saloon uses not one English translation but six, creating a mash-up effect that results in characters frequently repeating a line in various renderings. The bitter, middle-aged Vanya refers to his former brother-in-law Serebryakov, a retired academic, as "a dried-up old stick, a moldy mackerel, a pedantic old fossil, a guppy with a college degree."

Two Vanyas munch toast and exude disaffection in Minor Character.
(© Elke Young)

On top of the textual layers is a cast whose parts are continually changing. Sometimes a role is played by one actor, other times by two or three simultaneously. When a drunk Vanya makes a pass at Yelena, Serebryakov's hot wife, there are three Vanyas and three Yelenas onstage. As the Vanyas spout compliments, one Yelena lies down, another sits, and a third stares at a wall hung with paintings. And not only do multiple actors sometimes play the same part; actors also switch parts now and then. A Yelena in one scene may be a country doctor in another.

Confused yet? For those who go into this show knowing Uncle Vanya, keeping up is a challenge. For those who don't, it's an exercise in futility. Costume designer Alice Tavener tries to clarify matters by outfitting each character in signature items — Yelena always wears furs, Serebryakov's hardworking daughter a Rosie the Riveter-like bandanna and pink rubber gloves. These markers help, as do some standout performances, especially by Ron Domingo as an airy Yelena (and others), but they're not enough. The theatrical experiment of Minor Character tickles the intellect, but it leaves the soul unmoved.

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