New Saloon, an intellectually playful experimental theater company founded in 2012, returns to Under the Radar with an updated version of their Uncle Vanya adaptation, which they debuted at the festival two years ago. The show simultaneously presents six English translations of Chekhov’s play, ranging from Marian Fell’s (the first, which was published in the United States in 1912) to Google Translate, and including New Saloon co-founder Milo Cramer’s.
The oddness and the excess of this mash-up can be fun, and occasionally funny. In the opening scene, Madeline Wise performs both the old nurse Marina and the country doctor Dr. Astrov in conversation with one another, as if both are on amphetamines, and says at one point in her rush of words: “…I’m bored. Life is boring, it’s stupid, it stinks, boring, stupid, squalid, dreary, silly, filthy… It drags you down, this life.”
How you respond to 85 minutes of New Saloon’s approach might largely depend on 1. How well versed you are in Chekhov’s play, and 2. Whether you saw Christopher Durang’s “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike,” and how much you enjoyed it. Durang spoofed Chekhov hilariously, but did so by fashioning his own, contemporary story out of bits and pieces from various of Chekov’s plays; the result doesn’t require any deep knowledge of the Russian writer’s work. But “Minor Character” is all “Uncle Vanya.” Yes, there’s lots of avant-garde noodling: Besides the repetitive pile-on of translations, the eight-member cast switches roles frequently, sometimes several of them portraying the same character at the same time. They don colorful costumes and break out into song. This is not a production that follows Chekhov’s prescription: “The whole meaning or drama of a person lies internally, not in outer manifestations.”
But the story is all there, and it unfolds at a running time that’s not all that much shorter than a traditional production (especially since there’s no intermission.) If you don’t already know Chekhov well, the horseplay might serve as distraction, lessening your incentive to focus on the drama.
“Minor Character” is not as sharply funny as Chekhov parodies like Durang’s, nor as moving as some recent more straightforward productions of “Uncle Vanya.” But the presence of such an ebullient cast seems to give the play a subtext that overtakes the text: Instead of a story about old, lonely people who feel they’ve wasted their lives, it feels like one about mostly young, collegial people who are dissatisfied with their lives, but are doing something about it. What they’re doing is having fun on stage.
Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater
Created by New Saloon
Directed by Morgan Green
Dramaturg: Elliot B. Quick
Composer: Deepali Gupta
Producer: Caroline Gart
Stage Manager: Katherine Shelton
Music Director: Robert Frost
Scenic Designer: Kristen Robinson
Costume Designer: Alice Tavener
Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring
Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab
Production Manager: Will Jennings
Text: Anton Chekhov
Translations: Marian Fell, Laurence Senelick, Paul Schmidt, Carol Rocamora, Milo Cramer, and Google Translate
Featuring Milo Cramer, Ron Domingo, Rona Figueroa, Fernando Gonzalez, David Greenspan, LaToya Lewis, Caitlin Morris, and Madeline Wise
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Minor Character is on stage through January 13, 2019.