IT’S IN THE TEXT - MINOR CHARACTER at Sharon Playhouse
For something completely different, Sharon Playhouse, under new artistic direction, is presenting MINOR CHARACTER: SIX TRANSLATIONS OF UNCLE VANYA AT THE SAME TIME, an unfailingly interesting and quirky, innovative adaptation of Chekov’s classic. Created by a group of twenty-something dramatists called New Saloon, the production had its premier at the Under the Radar series at The Public Theater last January. Saloon’s founding trio - Morgan Green, who directs, and Madeline Wise and Milo Cramer, who act - with dramaturg Elliot B. Quick wondered more than four years ago what would happen to text if they read different translations of a classic play at the same time. New Saloon’s MINOR CHARACTER combines six English translations of the Russian original from an early, 1916 adaptation to a version generated by Google Translate. The cast of eight plays eight different characters with all but one assuming gender-blind multiple roles, speaking at times overlapping, slightly different, but similar dialogue, sometimes even switching roles within scenes.
Sound confusing? Not really. Get to the Bok Gallery, an intimate space that’s a perfect fit to the sensibility of this production, and review the short excellent summary of Uncle Vanya provided in the program before the play starts. Or sit back and “go with the flow” for an unexpected theatrical experience. Far from "mashed-up", Chekov’s story - first staged in 1899 - will emerge with both its mirthful wit and earthbound melancholy intact.
The tale, in brief - an aging celebrated intellectual, The Professor, arrives with his younger, sexy second wife , Yelena, at the struggling country estate owned by his ordinary teenage daughter Sonya (by his first wife who died years before) and managed on a shoe-string by his loyal, middle-aged, brother-in-law, Vanya, Sonya’s uncle. Yelena catches the fancy of both Vanya and his drinking buddy and best friend, the worldly Dr. Astrov, on whom Sonya has an innocent’s crush. Jealousies ensue, desires clash. What’s more, Vanya resents The Professor’s success and woes his lot as vassal to his in-law, despite his devoted affection to his niece Sonya. Vanya’s mid-life crisis erupts. He lashes out.
MINOR CHARACTER still has a “workshop” flavor, but I found that refreshing, even charming. The “stage” is open floor space at the Bok, surrounded on three sides with “household” seating (mismatched kitchen chairs, comfortable sofas and the like). The playing space, cleverly designed by Kristen Robinson, is defined by a unified piece of what looks like old-fashioned linoleum flooring, at one end folding up as backdrop and continuing overhead to create a ceiling over a kitchen table from which the Russian family tensions play out. The props are everyday staples: toaster (actual bread is toasted), Skippy peanut butter jar, even local Harney Tea (actually brewed). Alice Tavener is responsible for the ingeniously resourceful and witty costuming. Actors are dressed in contemporary clothes, more or less, which have an element that telegraphs - in case you miss some dialogue - the role each actor inhabits: sophisticated Yelenas are wrapped in mink stoles, housemaid Marinas are frocked in floral-patterned kitchen aprons.
The youthful company (all apparently twenty-something except the actor paying The Professor ) exudes a palpable energy, augmented by Green’s spirited direction. (MINOR CHARACTER flies by in about 95 minutes, with no intermission.) Cleverly, Green punctuates the action with original music by Deepali Gupta, minimal melodies, evoking pastoral ballads, sung by the ensemble a cappella with lyrics from Chekov’s text. Pre-recorded interstitial music is often as witty as the costuming. At the height of erotic tensions between Yelena and Dr. Astrov, music director Robert Frost introduces a few bars of the score from 1972’s “Last Tango in Paris.” Green also introduces a brief dance, sort of a funky group fugue, after all the characters have been introduced and the games among them are just to begin.
But getting back to the text, New Saloon’s dramaturgical task was Herculean. Consider the trial and error, and then practiced timing, over and over, to identify the rhythms in not one or two but six overlapping translations among eight characters. Astonishingly, for the most part, it works. Still, in its conclusion, MINOR CHARACTER defaults to a single voice, played by a single character. In melancholic soliloquy Sonya reconciles for her beloved uncle and herself their lot in life and acceptance of the inevitable. Chekhov’s words are clear. His text prevails, which is what MINOR CHARACTER's experiment is all about.