Chekhov and Shakespeare Together at Last in Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet
Bedlam's latest production attempts a mash-up of two disparate classic dramas.
With their latest production, Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, give the ever-adventurous Bedlam theater company points for sheer chutzpah, at least: Who else would even think of mashing up Uncle Vanya and Romeo and Juliet in the first place? And yet, according to director Eric Tucker, as he was initially preparing to present Anton Chekhov's and William Shakespeare's dramas separately in repertory, he hit upon a way to articulate what he saw as "strong thematic similarities... Both plays showcase characters experiencing longing for love at different times in their lives. In Uncle Vanya, they are looking back saying how did I get here? In Romeo & Juliet, they are looking forward saying how can I get there?"
That already sounds like a rather thin peg on which to hang a concatenation of two such spiritually diametrically opposed dramas — Romeo and Juliet bursting with youthful fervor, Uncle Vanya weighed down by middle-aged ennui. But Bedlam has a history of shining illuminating light on old classics, bringing their taste for experimentation to everything from George Bernard Shaw comedies to Jane Austen stage adaptations, in addition to previous go-rounds with Chekhov and Shakespeare. If anyone could pull off such a mad feat, it's potentially Bedlam.
Whatever similarities Tucker saw in both these dramas, though, he has failed to communicate them in the mess of a production that has resulted. In practice, Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet plays more like a production of Uncle Vanya with bits of Romeo and Juliet awkwardly stitched in. Even when the transitions from one play to another are smoothly done — there is, for instance, a certain logic in jumping from Vanya's (Edmund Lewis) failed attempt to kill Serebryakov (Randolph Curtis Rand) to Romeo's (Lewis) successful killing of Tybalt (Tucker) and subsequent banishment — Tucker's production never makes a convincing case for why these two works should be presented this way at all.
It doesn't help that the Uncle Vanya scenes are considerably stronger than the Romeo and Juliet segments here. There's a playful colloquial snap to Kimberly Pau's adaptation of the Chekhov play that this cast of five — with Tucker playing Dr. Astrov; Susannah Millonzi as the secretly lovelorn Sonya; and Zuzanna Szadkowski as the bored temptress Yelena, Serebryakov's much younger wife — energetically seize upon, breathing fresh air into this oft-performed warhorse. They seem infinitely more comfortable with Chekhov's idiom than with Shakespeare's; when the production turns to the tale of the two star-cross'd lovers, the performers resort more often than not to shouting their lines at each other, signaling emotions rather than fully inhabiting them. But then, with the actors being forced to switch from one world to another on a dime, perhaps the short shrift given to one play over the other was inevitable.
Tucker has brought his usual economy of style to the technical elements. John McDermott's set design consists of little more than a few fake leafless trees, a couple of tables, piles of books, and a balloon to fill the in-the-round setup at A.R.T./New York Theatres' Mezzanine Theatre; while Charlotte Palmer-Lane clothes the actors in modern dress, thereby erasing any historical divisions between the two plays.
The sense of abstraction these design elements generate only serves to emphasize a hollowness at the heart of this production, though. Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet is likely not going to appeal to those unfamiliar with either play, which means it will attract only connoisseurs who already know these works intimately and are expecting to gain insights into both from this experience. Unfortunately, all dyed-in-the-wool theatergoers will be left with are noncommittal half-measures — the cutesy use of modern songs such as "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Careless Whisper," a rubber ducky that Lewis occasionally coughs up for no apparent reason at random moments — instead of a coherent vision. God bless Bedlam for continuing to take risks with the theatrical canon, but this latest provocation is a misbegotten misstep.