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Theatre in Review: Minor Character (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Photo: Elke Young.

Uncle Vanya gets the chop in this exercise from the theatre troupe known as New Saloon. The piece offers a quick tour of Chekhov's play, using a mashup of six translations, ranging from Marion Fell's 1918 version to one produced by Google Translate. I assume the latter is responsible for the moment when someone says, "Check this out," or when Marina, the family's elderly nanny, announces that everyone the house is a bunch of "f--krs." These days, you never know.

Anyway, Minor Character is a state-of-the-art collection of avant-garde theatrical tropes, if not innovations: The eight members of the company constantly switch roles, with women often playing men and vice versa. As many as four actors may appear at one time playing the same character, leading to a squad of Helenas confronting a team of Astrovs; some of these involve overlapping dialogue, others feature choral speaking. Once in a while, several characters deliver their lines directly at the audience. (In certain cases, such moments accompanied by wildly artificial gestures, but since the group performance style veers all over the map, you can't depend on it.)

I use the word "avant-garde" advisedly, since most of these approaches have by now been so done to death that whatever provocation they once offered has faded. After a promising beginning, featuring a chorus line of Chekovian kvetchers, this approach yields a remarkably repetitive series of effects that neither honor the original nor do they yield any new insights or comedy. The show's marketing materials assert, "Each character is interpreted by multiple actors and through multiple translations, in an athletic attempt to say one true thing. 'I've been made a complete fool,' Vanya says, 'foolishly betrayed,' Vanya agrees, 'stupidly cheated,' Vanya clarifies." Making such comparisons in one's study, one might find meaning in the nuances of each; delivered at the pace of screwball comedy, they come across as an extra-large bowl of word salad. (The text also draws on the work of Laurence Senelick, Paul Schmidt, Carol Rocamora, and Milo Cramer, a member of the cast.)

Aside from some particularly labored bits of staging -- when Astrov lectures Helena about deforestation, he produces an old-fashioned home movie screen and an overhead projector -- Morgan Green's direction keeps a fairly tight lid on these proceedings, keeping them from spinning into chaos. (Whatever the cast members are asked to do, they do it with discipline and a fair amount of technique.) The production design has its arbitrary aspects, including Kristin Robinson's set, which relies rather too heavily on a single flowered print material, and Masha Tsimring's lighting, which isn't overly concerned with illuminating the actors' faces. Still, the audience would be lost without Alice Tavener's costumes, which assign key pieces to each character -- a fur stole for Helena, a light blue bathrobe for Vanya -- to help us track the characters. M. Florian Staab's sound design includes some impressive thunderclaps and gunshots as well as reinforcement for Deepali Gupta's original music, which often sounds like the score from a mid-1950s Hollywood film.

Once or twice, the mannerisms fall away, and the deep sorrow and trenchant humor of Chekhov's vision is allowed to slip through. As mentioned, the cast is adept and it's always a pleasure to have David Greenspan around, even in the relatively small role of Serebryakov, the elderly academic whose financial demands make so many burdens for the put-upon Vanya and his niece, Sonya. But the enterprise exudes an atmosphere of exhaustion: Is the company trying to say something penetrating about Chekhov, or is this odd, stuttering approach to one of the world's greatest plays meant to be admired for its own sake? Coming so soon after Gregory Mosher's stunning revival at Hunter College a few months ago, Minor Characters comes off a labored academic joke, reducing a canonical text to a tower of Babel. -- David Barbour

(7 January 2019)

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