Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Uncle Vanya

Hi everyone,

To go along with my book-related posts, I've decided to add more entertainment value to my blog with some arts-related news. Every once in a while, I put down my markers and make it out of the apartment to attend an event, browse through a museum, or see a movie.

During my sister's visit earlier this month, we did all of that and more. In three days, we visited The Kennedy Center to see Uncle Vanya and Wicked, we toured the Holocaust Museum and the D.C. aquarium, and we squeezed in some Cowboys and Aliens to balance things out.

While I highly recommend all those things, I'll focus on The Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya. Cate Blanchett--one of our favorite, favorite actresses--and her husband writer/director Andrew Upton took over artistic direction of The Sydney Theatre Company in Australia in 2008 and the following year showed up at The Kennedy Center with a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. For that show, we sat four rows from the stage in awe.

This year, they have returned with Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov's classic tale of discontented lives. While we were neither as familiar with this play nor as close to the stage, the production and performances were just as gripping.

Uncle Vanya and Yelena
© Lisa Tomasetti
Set in an old farmhouse managed by Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) and his niece Sonya (Hayley McEllhinney), the story evolves around a prolonged visit from Sonya's father, Professor Serebryakov (John Bell), and his second, much-younger wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett). Love triangles and other personal frustrations are revealed: Vanya worships Yelena. Yelena and Sonya both love the country doctor (Hugo Weaving). And, the professor--who inherited control of the estate from his deceased first wife, Vanya's sister--plans to start fresh by selling the place.

Being a Chekhov play, my sister and I expected it to depress us. Instead, we were surprised by its humor and physicality, aspects enhanced in Andrew Upton's adaptation and under Tamas Ascher's direction. I particularly liked the story's timelessness and modern feel. Despite the play's origin--written in Russia in 1897--time and place are not defined or identifiable in this production. And, all of the characters have fantastic Australian accents.

Following a 6-month break after Uncle Vanya's first run in Sydney, this all-Australian cast reconvened for its exclusive U.S. engagement in D.C. By the time it got here, the director trusted the cast with the material and told them to surprise each other every night. This gives them the freedom to work within the framework of the play and means that each show is apparently a little different from the last. (Now, I kind of want to see it again!)

Catch it while you can! Uncle Vanya plays at The Kennedy Center through August 27.

Cate and Company
Lucky me! When Cate Blanchett was performing in A Streetcar Named Desire here 2 years ago, I attended a lunchtime discussion with her about that play. Repeating the treat, a similar evening discussion with all of Uncle Vanya's major players took place last night. Here are some good comments from satisfied audience members: "I've been coming to the theatre for 40 years, and you, Ms. Blanchett, are the most captivating performer I have ever seen!" and "I know you have your choice of where to take the Sydney Theatre Company productions. You could go to New York--or anywhere--but you chose The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For that, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart." Right on, brothers.

The final question from the audience was a generic one: What advice would you give a young theatre artist? Richard Roxburgh was last to answer because he took a long time to articulate his response. I think I figured out that he was trying to say you should feel free as an artist. You should feel lucky and  always enjoy the exploration and journey, living life to the fullest. But it came out something like this: "You know, as artists, you have have to....You know, I always think of Pablo Picasso as the ultimate....the ultimate--"
"Philanderer," Cate interrupted.
"Yes! And that's my advice."

While this isn't the same discussion, you can get a taste of Uncle Vanya through this short interview with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh, which aired on PBS Newshour earlier this week:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour. (© PBS Newshour)

You can see the full 20-minute PBS Newshour interview here. Enjoy!

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