Theatre review: Blackbird Theatre’s Uncle Vanya is solid and handsome

It is somewhat ironic that while the Weston family drama currently plays out on the silver screens around town, the Voynitsky family is dealing with its own problems on stage at The Cultch in the Blackbird Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya.

But while the Westons deal in endless histrionics, with the exception of a too fleeting moment in the third act that puts the Osage County fights to shame, the familial turmoil in Uncle Vanya is considerably more solemn and languid.  Here in Russia everyone is unhappy, depressed or simply bored; sometimes they are all three.

The ennui that permeates the rooms of the country estate hangs so heavy in the air that you can almost taste it, and this very capable cast simply devours it.  All in fine form, this ensemble so sharply embraces Chekhov’s depressing outlook that no doubt director John Wright had to hide the knife used to cut the loaf of bread until opening.

Particularly good here is Luisa Jojic as the much younger wife to the estate’s de facto owner, who balances her numerous declarations of boredom with a contrasting lightness to her movements, as if she were in a ballet.  Cherise Clarke plays the plain spinster Sonya with a sorrow that is palpable and is the only character whose stoic resolve helps make her more relatable of all Chekov’s other characters in the play.  Among the men, Robert Moloney gives a wonderfully watchable performance as the heavy-drinking and philandering Doctor Astrov.

Robert Moloney and Luisa Jojic in the Blackbird Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Robert Moloney and Luisa Jojic in the Blackbird Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Much has been made of the black comedy in this particular Chekhov play, but don’t let these rumours or any advance PR fool you.  While there are a few darkly funny moments, including that burst of farcical energy in its third act, the overall feel is as gloomy as the early fall storm that besets the estate, made even gloomier by the lethargic pace in which Wright directs.

Performed in the round, the intent according to director Wright’s notes is “to bring the audience as close the play as possible”, which is somewhat at odds with the set-up inside The Cultch’s historic theatre as the bulk of the seats in the house cannot be included in any intimacy.  The decision to have the actors make their initial entrances from among the seats on the main floor was puzzling and may even have the opposite of its intended effect by ignoring the audience in the balcony.

Set designer Marti Wright realizes some surprisingly handsome rooms in the estate with a minimum of pieces, and is helped immensely by Alan Brodie’s moody lighting.

But while solid and handsome, Uncle Vanya ultimately fails to leave any lasting impression and much like the current film version of August: Osage County, come awards season this production will also only likely realize its  nominations for a couple of individual performances.

Three StarsUncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov.  Translated by Peter Petro and edited by Errol Durbach and John Wright.  Directed by John Wright.  A Blackbird Theatre Company production.  On stage at The Cultch through January 18, 2013.  Visit http://blackbirdtheatre.ca for tickets and information.

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