Posts Tagged ‘anton chekhov’

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Neil LaBute
Directed By Annamaria Pileggi

John Pierson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is currently staging a production of Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya, in an adaptation by Neil LaBute. This play is famous for a reason, considering its timeless themes and memorable characters. On stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater, the play is given a remarkably measured, expertly acted staging that brings out the play’s poignancy and emotion.

The story, set in late 19th Century Russia, follows a group of characters whose lives aren’t where they would want them to be. Vanya (John Pierson) and his niece Sonya (Bryn McLaughlin) manage a country estate that belonged to Sonya’s late mother. Her father, the retired professor Serebryakov (Greg Johnston) has been staying there recently along with his young second wife Yelena (Jennelle Gilreath Owens). While the ailing professor bemoans his lost youth, Yelena has attracted the attentions of both Vanya and local doctor Astrov (Michael James Reed). The story that ensues involves unrequited love, regrets of lost potential, flirtations, resentments, and crushing loneliness, as almost everyone seems to want something they can’t have. 

It’s an ensemble play, with most of the action revolving around Vanya, Sonya, Astrov, and Yelena, but also featuring supporting characters in the form of the professor, Vanya’s mother Maria (Jan Meyer), family nurse Marina (Eleanor Mullin), and family friend Telegin (Michael Musgrave-Perkins), who also lives on the estate. The acting is universally impressive, well-paced by director Pileggi so that every emotional moment is earned, and nobody goes over the top. Pierson is excellent as the regretful, lonely Vanya, and McLaughlin’s pining (after Astrov) but insistently hopeful Sonya is also a standout. There are also strong performances from Owens as the conflicted Yelena and Reed as the lovestruck Astrov. Everyone is strong, with excellent moments all around and cohesive ensemble chemistry that helps carry this long play and make every moment fascinating. 

Technically, this production is also remarkable, in using the Gaslight Theater stage in a way the emphasizes the confined, closed-in feeling of some of the characters. The  meticulously crafted set by Patrick Huber, who also designed the lighting, suits the mood and era appropriately, as do Teresa Doggett’s excellent costumes. There’s also good use of sound and music in the transitions, with impressive work by sound designer Pileggi. 

Uncle Vanya has stood the test of time for its relatable themes, characters, and situations, even though we may be over a century removed from its setting. Astrov has some lines that mention what people may think of them a hundred years in the future, and these moments made me think of how this play has endured through the years, being staged in many places and venues around the world. At St. Louis Actors’ Studio, this play is given a remarkable production more than worthy of the play’s reputation. 

Jennelle Gilreath Owens, Michael James Reed, Bryn McLaughlin
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Uncle Vanya at the Gaslight Theater until  March 5, 2023

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Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
May 28, 2020

Promo Image by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts


Since live theatre is sadly on pause at the moment, several St. Louis theatre companies have been taking the opportunity to experiment with the medium of online theatre in various forms. At the forefront of that experimentation is one of the area’s more daring and inventive theatre company’s, Equally Represented Arts (ERA), who have taken this opportunity to re-present one of their productions via the Zoom video conferencing format. It’s a bold move for a theatre company known for its boldness, and even though it still doesn’t completely fill the void left by a truly live in-person performance, it makes the most of its medium and provides a thoroughly provocative, memorable experience.

Moscow! was previously performed at the St. Lou Fringe Festival in 2015 in a more traditional, live format, although as is typical for ERA, the story, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, was done in a unique, experimental manner, in this instance as a drinking game. That structure remains in the Zoom version, with viewers instructed to take a drink every time one of the characters says “Moscow”.  In a way, this format works better in a setting in which viewers are watching from home.  Of course, you also have more choice of beverages in your own home, whether you choose to drink “high-octane” or “low-octane”–although I would caution viewers to take care, because the characters say “Moscow” a lot.  I had to refill my cup twice during the one-hour production, and I was only drinking water. Let’s just say I was well-hydrated by the end. 

This production is especially clever, using the Zoom format to its best advantage, allowing for the various cast members to stream from their own homes while maintaining the illusion that they are meeting together when the story calls for that. I was especially grateful for the “after party” talkback session afterwards, in which the cast and crew explained the preparation that went into this production, which featured excellent work from production designer and director Lucy Cashion, costume designer Marcy Wiegert, music director Joe Taylor, and stage manager Miranda Jagels Félix. The video conferencing setup also provided some unique pitfalls, though, such as the viewing format varying according to which way the viewers chose to watch–on smart phone or computer via the app, or on a computer via their web browser. As ideally presented and designed, the viewer was supposed to see the perspective alternating between individual characters’ view, and gallery view in which all characters were visible at once. Some viewers, including myself (watching on my Chromebook with the app), this presentation didn’t come across, Instead, I and others only got to see the alternating focus on individual characters. Still, the pacing the production and performances made it riveting even with the difference in format. 

The story is also probably easier to follow if you’re familiar with Chekhov’s original play, which I hadn’t seen or read before. Still, the excellent cast and Cashion’s strong direction made this presentation memorable. The story follows the Prozerov family–the three sisters Olga (Ellie Schwetye), Masha (Rachel Tibbetts), and Irina (Alicen Moser), and their brother Andrey (Will Bonfiglio), who live in a small Russian town and miss their time growing up in Moscow (drink!). Various romantic entanglements, living situation woes, occupational issues, and personal conflicts ensue as several years pass through the course of the story and the characters’ fortunes and life attitudes change according their circumstances. We meet Masha’s nice but not particularly exciting husband Kulygin (Gabe Taylor), Andrey’s controlling wife Natasha (Maggie Conroy), and the dashing soldier and Masha’s paramour Vershinin (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), along with two officers battling for Irina’s affections–the more dependable Baron Tuzenbach (Mitch Eagles), and the impulsive Solyony (Jakob Hultén). The cast also features Carl Overly, Jr. as old family friend Chebutykin, Cashion as longtime family servant Anfisa, who occasionally provides a bit of narration to set the scene, and Joe Taylor (who is playing atmospheric music throughout) as Ferapont.  It’s a strong cast all around, with the sisters especially strong with their contrasting personalities, from Schwetye’s more even-tempered Olga, to Tibbetts’s melancholic Masha, to Moser’s initially hopeful but conflicted Irina. Bonfiglio is also memorable as the increasingly bitter Andrey, as is Conroy as the selfish, controlling Natasha. The entire cast is excellent, though, with surprisingly strong ensemble chemistry considering the fact that none of the players are in the same room. There’s a degree of energy here that’s especially impressive considering it’s a streamed performance, although the fact that each performance was done live certainly helps with the energy level. 

The shifting tone and pace of the show is also handled especially well, with comic moments punctuating the piece early on, and some moments of poignancy as the story continues. It’s a worthwhile experiment from the always clever and provocative ERA. Even though I still look forward to the day when I can go to the theatre again, productions like this make the wait a lot easier.

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Life Sucks
by Aaron Posner, adapted from Anton Chekhov
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 23, 2018

Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Jeff Cummings
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Life Sucks is the title of New Jewish Theatre’s latest production. It’s also the most uttered line in the play. It’s a phrase that inspires much pondering, arguing, and philosophizing among the characters in playwright Aaron Posner’s re-imagined, modernized version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. As staged at NJT, it also provides an excellent showcase for some excellent local performers.

The story here is essentially a fourth-wall breaking, sort of but not always linear version of the Uncle Vanya story, but with more of an emphasis on broad comedy with focus on the characters’ internal conflicts more than on the actual plot. In fact, at least one key plot point of Chekhov’s Vanya is essentially treated as a throwaway element in this play. Here, the characters talk to the audience and try to work out their various existential crises. The characters are also modified to varying degrees from Chekhov, with some having different names. It’s essentially a series of vignettes and confrontations, with occasional moments of the whole cast assembling to speak to the audience or to a particular character. Sonia (Katy Keating) outlines the relationships. Vanya (Christopher Harris) is her uncle, and Babs (Jan Meyer) is sort of her aunt, and the three live together in what was Sonia’s mother’s house. Sonia’s father, The Professor (Greg Johnston) is an aging, self-important academic who rarely visits and is insecure in his relationship to his third wife, Ella (Julie Layton). Ella, for her part, is boggled by the fact that almost everyone in the play seems to be in love with her, especially Vanya and his old friend Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings), with whom Sonia has long been enamored. There’s also Pickles (Michelle Hand), another sort-of aunt who still grieves a long-ended relationship and also is attracted to Ella. The framework plot of Uncle Vanya is here, but its the characters and their views of life, relationships, and their own personal crises that take precedence here, and although there are some poignant moments, it’s essentially a comedy.

The script is engaging, with emphasis on character relationships, fantastical elements, witty dialogue, and a lot of contempory pop culture references.  It’s an intriguing take on the source material, and since character is key here, the casting is also important. All six players here are strong, embodying the archtypes of their characters well. Keating is an especially relatable Sonia, and her relationship with Harris’s emotionally effusive Vanya is especially poignant. The structure of the script is such that all the characters are given moments to shine, from Layton’s excellent reflection on what it’s like to be pursued and idealized by so many people, to Johnston’s reflections on aging, to Hand’s yearning for people to see past her quirks, and more. Cummings, as the amiable but somewhat aimless Aster, and Mayer as the more world-wise Babs are also excellent. The sense of cohesive ensemble chemistry, in fact, is a real highlight of this production.

The production values here are nothing short of stunning. Peter and Margery Spack’s set is colorful, detailed, and whimsical, representing Sonia’s house and backyard in a literal way but also with some more fantastical touches. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well. There’s also excellant evocative, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry. Overall, the play seems to take place at once in the “real world” of the characters but also at the same time in their heads and in an “out of time” space, and all the technical elements here help to set and maintain that effect, augmenting the strong performances of the cast.

The questions raised in Life Sucks are ones with which many audience members will relate–questions of identity, relationship, and purpose in life. It’s a clever, sometimes a little pretentious but still witty and entertaining piece with some truly wonderful performances. It’s a memorable way to close out New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season.

Katy Keating, Jeff Cummings, Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Greg Johnston, Julie Layton, Michelle Hand
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Life Sucks at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until June 10, 2018.


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