Aging, anxiety, envy, love, failure, beauty, suffering- the subject of dramas by the great playwrights from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Ibsen and Chekhov. Powerful characters created memorable moments that seem as real and contemporary as if written yesterday, despite being centuries old. The Wilma Theater, in its first return to live audiences, has chosen to take “Uncle Vanya,” one of Chekhov’s classics, and present it in a new form, a 21st century form created by New Saloon, with the twists of comedy and confusion. I am sad to report that the confusion was so off putting that I couldn’t figure out what was happening on stage most of the time, and anyone not familiar with the original play, will find “Minor Character” especially hard to understand.
Seven actors playing multiple parts including lots of moments where they were on stage at the same time, spitting out lines based on six different Chekhov translations- at the same time. Innovative? Yes. Comprehensible- rarely.
The actors shout the words, but ignore the depth of emotions that made the original “Uncle Vanya” and other Chekhov plays so powerful. I felt like I was listening to brief essays on life, but I never felt connected to either a drama or the comedy that the cast and director Yury Urnov were trying to achieve.
As the actors shifted roles, it would take me a moment to understand which character was speaking. And when three actors spoke different interpretations at the same time, I was completely lost.
I knew that the main characters the Chekhov play- Vanya and his niece, the doctor, the professor, and the new wife. But the actors kept switching roles and there was no attempt to reveal the inner character of any. You are spending most of the time simply trying to follow the plot that is simple in the original play, but quite convoluted in this adaptation.
The play is almost two hours in length, without an intermission. It is tedious to sit through such a production, but I suppose the comment by the dramaturg in the digital program indicates that she had the problem with the original. She wrote “I have a confession to make. I have historically struggled to connect with Chekhov’s plays.” Perhaps “Minor Character” is meant for a younger, hipper crowd who don’t get the complexity of Chekhov.
At the conclusion, I had to rush to the men’s room. While there, another man entered and I asked him what he thought of the play. “We were lucky,” he said. We were 15 minutes late. There was an accident on the expressway. We must have missed the good part.” He didn’t.
I don’t like writing such a negative piece about a theater whose work and productions I both respect and enjoy. “Minor Character” is a clever idea, but just doesn’t work for me. As this is the first play I’ve seen live since the beginning of the pandemic, I look forward to other Wilma plays this season.
If you can’t go but still want to check it out for yourself, Wilma will be streaming the play after the stage production closes.
On Stage thru Oct. 24, 2021
Streaming from Oct. 25- Nov. 7, 2021