Saturday, March 14, 2015

reviews - UNCLE VANYA - Southwest Shakespeare Company

Alison Sell and Jesse James Kamps
Photo: Mark Gluckman / Southwest Shakespeare Company
For more information on this production, that runs through March 21st, click here

"Featuring solid performances, Southwest Shakespeare's production of Uncle Vanya, the first Chekhov play in their 21-year history, proves to be a dynamic, intimate, and ultimately moving presentation. Using the recent modern adaptation by Annie Baker, and with the audience surrounding the action on all four sides, this is a highly enjoyable and intimate production of the Russian classic. However, it still features the same deeply depressing and miserable characters, so at the end you may feel like you need a shot or two of vodka.   This is Chekhov, so the characters are in a state of continual misery and despair. Baker's updated adaptation doesn't change any of that, yet provides fast paced action and uses modern dialogue to provide a clearer connection to the characters. Harold Dixon directs a fantastic cast, made up of many Southwest Shakespeare regulars, who provide intense, realistic portrayals of these characters. However, there are a few small things that don't quite work in both the adaptation and this production. The character's names are still the same as in the original piece, and the continual pronunciation of their thick, tongue twisting, and very long Russian names is somewhat at odds with the character's contemporary colloquiums and American accents. Baker still uses some old fashioned names for items like "samovar," which momentarily takes you out of the modern setting. Also, the furniture that is used, which is mostly a mixture of antique pieces, is completely at odds with the modern clothes. Perhaps the mismatched furniture and clothing is intentional to show the sad state of affairs that the estate has fallen into.  Fortunately, those are the only quibbles as the direction and cast are quite good. While the piece is mainly an ensemble, it is Vanya and Sonya who are the most impacted by the events of the summer. Jesse James Kamps and Allison Sell are relentless in their portrayals of these two characters who show us the low emotional depths both encounter. Sell is delivering a very well thought out performance with nuanced layers of pain and suffering. Kamps is almost as good, bringing a sheer sense of intensity to the part, with the same careful attention to the character's anguish. However, once or twice during some very emotional moments Kamps nearly crosses over the line into melodrama where his actions are a bit too broad, which doesn't quite seem organic to the character.  The arrangement of the Farnsworth Studio space has the audience close enough to see even the most subtle expressions on the actors' faces. The setup even has some of the audience seated on couches similar to the ones in the set design, which is an excellent choice that pulls us even further into the action. Dixon's staging is so effective that no one on any side ever feels left out, with the backs of any actor very rarely turned to them for more than a few seconds, though the somewhat continual movements of the actors never seem unrealistic. Daniel Davisson's lighting is stunning, delivering some exceptionally lit nighttime scenes. While the furniture might be slightly at odds with the modern adaptation, the props are quite good, some even humorous—take note of Vanya's "smiley face" coffee cup.  Even in a modern adaptation, Uncle Vanya still focuses on a group of unhappy characters. So if you're looking for an uplifting journey, this isn't the play for you. However, for a rich, cathartic experience with deeply flawed, eternally suffering characters who are portrayed by an exceptional cast, Southwest Shakespeare's Uncle Vanya is highly recommended." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"Southwest Shakespeare Company describes itself as “Arizona’s Professional Classical Theatre Company.”  That definition implies that Mesa’s 21-year-old theater performs the often ponderous scripts that can bore audiences as chatty characters spew endless dialogue that takes a play’s heavy theme and drags them out for a lengthy performance of often bland monotone drama.  Such is the case with the company’s first Anton Chekhov drama, Uncle Vanya.  The complex work explores bleak late 19th century Russian life but this production has been updated by Annie Baker to a contemporary work.  Baker tries desperately to use everyday language as she unsuccessfully attempts to bring an intimacy to the story that dissects the desires of human relationships.  Her version doesn’t streamline a talky script or the characteristic heavy-handed approach Chekhov takes with his often bleak Russian characters. The setting is furnished beautifully but in a long ago historic period which detracts from the adaptation which would have been more effectively staged with a contemporary Russian look. There’s nothing seriously amiss with the nicely acted production although Harold Dixon’s laggardly staging further draws out the already slow moving and belabored play.  Jim Coates leads the ensemble as the stalwart old retired professor, Alexander, who, with his young second wife, Yelena, played with snobbish pride by Jordan Letson, has retired to his estate where the action occurs.  His first wife’s brother, Vanya, played with intensity by Jesse James Kamps, manages the place.   After much turmoil, everything is resolved and life continues to plod on as it has.  Not much happens in Uncle Vanya.  If dynamic classical theater is your thing, SSC’s Uncle Vanya will make you wonder why this is one of Chekhov’s finest plays." -Chris Curcio, KBAQ (click here to read the complete review)

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