Sounds like a variant of “When I’m not near the girl that I love, I love the girl I’m near,” but Steve Hamilton, who is directing an unusual production of Uncle Vanya for 12 performances next month at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, says that The Sea Gull used to be his favorite Chekhov play until…
Uncle Vanya. No doubt Hamilton’s reordering of his affections has to do with his decision to stage Vanya as “an intimate performance with limited seating”—approximately 50 people sitting onstage. No proscenium arrangement here, where the stage traditionally separates back curtain and orchestra pit. Just the cast and the lucky people who manage to snag advance tickets. “Run, don’t walk,” he advises. Chekhov, says Hamilton, has also always been a staple of his teaching, both as a private coach and via Skype all over the country, because the monologues and scenes encourage an enhanced appreciation of the text.
He traces his particular decision to do Vanya, however, to an interview Charlie Rose conducted with the actor, Wallace Shawn and the director, Andre Gregory (My Dinner with André) about the short-lived, rehearsal-workshop Vanya they did on a bare stage 20 years ago, with actors in street clothes, and before an invited audience of only 12. But it was Louis Malle’s ingenious film about that experiment—its conception, development and performance—called Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street—that became memorable. In thinking about Malle, Hamilton saw a great opportunity to “let the play speak for itself,” though he’s eager to speak about the special pleasures such a production can offer. “Theatre often lacks authenticity…by design,” Hamilton has said, but “when two people on stage engage in an intimate scene about the most private issue and, for the sake of the audience in the last row of the mezzanine, they face front and yell what should be the most private of exchanges in order to be heard,” the result is often a “destructive stretch of faith” and of emotional truth.
Certainly, the most important consideration was finding the right cast, “85% of a director’s job.” It wasn’t until mid-November that Hamilton was able to “tempt” the veteran actor Fred Melamed into playing Vanya, a man of middle age caught between disappointment and despair but not beyond ironic self-indictment. In addition to Melamed, the production also features Rachel Feldman, Herb Foster, Alicia St. Louis, Janet Sarno, Daniel Becker and Delphi Harrington. (Hamilton will also act, in addition to direct.)
Of course, Chekhov lovers know that all of the dramas written by the good doctor (Chekhov earned a medical degree when he was 24, and went on first to write short stories) present challenges for a director, not least of which is choosing the right translation. Chekhov’s style—simple dialogue but full of telling repetitions, pauses, comic asides, sentimental outcries and non-sequiturs— has always seemed evocative of late 19th century Russia at a time when the hard lines between the classes were breaking down, and, in more recent productions, of a modern, moody disconnectedness. Hamilton says he decided on a translation by Paul Schmidt because it had the “most presence” as a text—“dutiful to the original story and with a “contemporary feel… an American tone.”
He was particularly concerned about getting “intelligent and skilled actors” who would see the humor in Uncle Vanya—“the pathos speaks for itself.” Vanya is, arguably, a tricky play to stage well because of the invitation to succumb to its dark and sardonic—one might even venture cynical—moments. There’s the play’s quietly desperate last line, “We shall rest,” which comes in the wake of the dissolution of Serebriakoff’s estate and the dispersal of family and friends forever. How will Hamilton tease out the comic elements? Come and see. May 3-20, www.guildhall.org or www.theatermania.com. 1-866-811-4111 or starting May 3 631-324-4050. $25, members $23, students $10.