Apollinaire Theatre production of Uncle Vanya was truly great, rather than just pretty good; it's the kind of production that you root for, because the play is a challenge for a small company, and this version is unpretentious, straightforward, and at the finish quite moving. Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques has also had the clever idea of staging the production all over her theatre's 1906 home (it was built only a decade after Uncle Vanya was written, on Winnisimmet Street in Chelsea). Fauteux Jacques has done this kind of thing before - she quite effectively staged The Seagull all over a nearby park a few years ago. And it's intriguing how well the technique works for Chekhov; somehow it carries the playwright's vaunted naturalism right through the "fourth wall" and into our laps; after all, the setting is now literally "real," and we're no longer a theatre audience but seemingly flies on the walls of an estate in the Russian provinces a hundred years ago. Indeed, you somehow feel a little frisson when the door to the Apollinaire "set" opens, and you can see other corridors and rooms beyond it (through which gunshots sometimes echo from points unknown, but hardly "offstage"). The drama fittingly plays out in smaller and smaller spaces, too - so that as the characters' lives close in on them, so do the walls.
If only I could praise the acting as much as I can the concept! But I wasn't taken with too many of the performances in this Vanya, I'm afraid. It has gotten a lot of attention from the press because local luminary John Kuntz (above, with Marissa Rae Roberts) has been cast in the title role, but he's basically wrong for it (though with a beard he looks right enough), and despite an earnest effort, only taps into the character's anger rather than his fresh disappointment or romantic, free-thinking nature. Thus Kuntz is pretty much over-shadowed by newcomer Ronald Lacey, whose defeated whimsy isn't quite right for Astrov either, but who consistently intrigues you anyway. (Watch out for this guy, I think we'll hear more from him.) I also liked Ann Carpenter's gruff Nanny and found Anne Marie Shea amusingly pretentious as Vanya's mother. And local casting honcho Kevin Fennessey was fine, but not distinctive, as Telegin. Meanwhile Erin Eva Butcher came through at the last second (with real tears) as Sonya, but till then didn't always seem connected to her character; likewise Marissa Rae Roberts, who made a quite lovely Elena, took the character's self-described boredom far too much to heart - she was just sleepy, rather than a sleeping mermaid. Elsewhere the production felt either a little flat or a little shouty - and perhaps most problematically of all, you never believed anybody in it was truly in love with anybody else.
Still, the despair of the last scene came over - and I think the outlines of Chekhov's vision were discernible here and there (despite an up-and-down translation from Craig Lucas). At least I could tell the audience - perhaps thanks to the Vanya on 42nd Street effect - left talking over the play's issues, with that look on their faces people get when they suddenly realize there's a whole world out there beyond cable, movies, and video games. And maybe that should be good enough for any critic.