When there’s a month with a fifth Wednesday, I’ll be heading Way-Off-Broadway for a look at theatrical happenings outside New York City. Given the limited run of one of the shows in this post, I’m bringing you the report early. (Not to worry; Theater Buff will appear next week.)
Washington, D.C. is hot…and not just because of its traditional swampy August weather. In the last six months, two shows that originated or were produced inside the beltway have announced Broadway transfers (Follies and the Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). The Studio Theatre’s Venus in Fur got a jump on the upcoming Broadway version with rave reviews. And two major works (discussed below) have made D.C. a hot ticket destination as not just our Nation’s Capital, but as a capital of regional theater.
Last weekend, I hopped aboard Amtrak (with my beloved train wine) to see if the talk is on target or the usual D.C. hot air…
Uncle Vanya, Sydney Theatre Company: Extraordinary. Don’t read another syllable; just click over to the Kennedy Center website now and see if there are any cancellations, random singles or “unfortunate” computer meltdowns that have revealed new tickets for this Aussie import (playing through August 27). Or call and sweet talk the box office manager. I’ll wait…Got ‘em? Good. Now, let’s discuss…
This production of Anton Chekhov’s masterful comedy/drama (about a middle-aged man discovering he has given his life to support the ephemeral work of his professor brother-in-law) reminded me why I love the theater; it touches something deeply personal and intensely humane, while being insanely entertaining. With one screen goddess/Oscar-winner (Cate Blanchett), an Oscar-nominee (Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver) and two bona fide film leading men (Captain America’s Hugo Weaving and Moulin Rouge’s Richard Roxburgh), you expect acting pyrotechnics — and you get them. What you don’t expect to get is enganging, emotional, cohesive ensemble work, but the Sydney Theatre Company is true to its name; it is a company, seamlessly (and unselfishly) working together. These actors feel like a family — rambunctious, fractious, each character tied to every other person on stage with finely tuned strings, all the better for tugging and twisting. Each knot is specific and alive at all times, whether the characters are front and center or not.
Much credit must go to director Tamás Ascher and his beautifully balanced work. Careening from tears to slapstick, it never feels like he chose to accent either the comedy or the drama in his take (as often happens with Chekhov) but let it be everything simultaneously — messily, vibrantly human. In particular, his pacing of the first act, while it seems slow to start, is canny because it allows us to get past the initial, distraction star-gazing (and believe me, Blanchett is just as gorgeous and ethereal as you imagine her to be) and, with every awkward pause and swatted fly, settle into the people on stage.
I could go on about the generous, full-bodied performances but I’ll let one detail suffice; the way each character reacts to vodka is wonderfully funny and astutely particular. Never generically drunk, the characters’ inner lives are magnified and, at times, set free in stunning detail by knocking back a shot (or two…or three). Weaving’s Astrov does a sexy, joyous lunge of a Russian dance. Roxburgh’s Vanya inflates and deflates like the sad clown of a silent film. Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya is struck dumb with adolescent paralysis and unspeakable joy/fear. And Blanchett’s Yelena hilariously bubbles and coos as she searches for a place to settle. Intoxicating.
Oklahoma, Arena Stage: I have to admit something terrible; Rodger’s & Hammerstein classic about farmers and cowmen on the prairie usually makes me squirm. I know it’s a milestone in music theater but I find it hard to be swept up by its box social, miniaturist plot, dream ballet as synopsis, and “kill someone but let’s go on a honeymoon” finale. Perhaps I saw a bad production as a child and was scarred; some shows just don’t click for some people no matter how good they are.
So imagine my surprise when, within a few minutes at the Arena Stage revival, I was energized and smiling broadly. This version pulses and spins with a youthful energy instead of sinking into any history play reverence. It captures something sharp-elbowed, hormonal and adolescent about our country’s frontier days as its multi-culutural cast barrels about the stage, boisterous and on the attack. And goodness is it beautiful sung. Nicholas Rodriguez (whom you may remember as the handsome, out soap stud from One Life to Live) has a gorgeously controlled, romantic voice as Curly. Eleasha Gamble’s effortless (and breakless) mix is like no Laurey I’ve ever heard; no fluttery soprano, she has an earthy quality that magically can still rise to the highest notes and makes so much sense for the pragmatic farm girl.
Even more essential to their success, Arena struck gold when casting their comedic secondary couple. Cody Williams is an acrobatic jumping bean as Will Parker, loveably dim and huggably sincere. June Schreiner’s Ado Annie, the best I’ve ever seen, exemplifies everything this production does well; she has pitchfork-sharp comic timing, sings like a dream and brings a teenage confusion to the role that is terrifically on target. In fact, I suddenly understood who this girl was for the first time. Where Ado to me is usually a slightly unpleasant (and often uncomfortably cast past her prime) town tramp, here she is a big hearted girl trying to make sense of her burgeoning womanhood with her limited understanding but boundless enthusiasm. Did I mention that Ms. Schreiner is a rising high school senior? Lord help any other young women trying out for her school play this year; she’s the real deal — and this production, at its finest moments, feels like a gust of fresh, sweet wind tearing through a fusty old barn (and, of course, sweeping down the plain.)