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Uncle Vanya

Target Margin's experimental production of Chekhov's classic play doesn't succeed on most levels.

Greig Sargeant and Edward O'Blenis
in Uncle Vanya
(© Sue Kessler Photography)
Since productions of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya come along regularly, you can't blame Target Margin artistic director David Herskovits for trying something different in his revival, now on view at HERE.

Unfortunately, this experiment -- in which his cast asked "to reforge the language in each moment," produced material "culled, discarded, revised and assembled into a cohesive draft," which was then edited and rewritten during rehearsals -- results in a clumsy translation spoken by a group of actors who are mostly not up to the challenge.

As a result, the classic drama about a late 19th-century household where the frustrated title character (Greig Sargeant) conflicts with the aging pedant Serebryakov (Mary Neufeld, in a traditionally male role), who has the power to decide the long-time family home's disposition, loses much of its power.

While it's a good idea to modernize language so it doesn't strike contemporary audiences as stilted, inserting modern slang that calls attention to itself is never recommended. For instance, the incorporated phrase "you got it," coming from someone in a country where serfdom has only recently been outlawed is not acceptable.

In the most disturbing transgression, Helena (Rebecca Hart), Serebryakov's bored young wife, usually ends the first act by saying something like, "This is excruciating." In Herskovits' "reforged" language, she blurts a four-letter word so out of place that the Translation Police should be called in.

However, Hart does indicate she would have a fighting chance in a different treatment of the play -- one that doesn't feature a stuffed bear on all fours moved here and there as a weird symbol of the faltering motherland.

Edward O'Blenis as Dr. Astrov -- despite having to make a series of strange sounds and at one point asked to execute something akin to a puzzling highland fling -- has a few moments that suggest he possesses genuine actor's chops. The rest of the cast doesn't fare nearly so well.

In the program, Herskovits also notes that "Above all, this is a play about the passage of time." Not so. Above all, Uncle Vanya is a play about what does or doesn't happen to several people living lives of quiet desperation. The passage of time that applies here is the painful slowness with which time inches by as the production at hand unfolds.