Uncle Vanya Is Coming To Guild Hall In East Hampton

Sounds like a variant of “When I’m not  near the girl that I love, I love the girl I’m  near,” but Steve Hamilton, who is directing  an unusual production of Uncle Vanya for 12  performances next month at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, says that The Sea Gull  used to be his favorite Chekhov play until…

Uncle Vanya. No doubt Hamilton’s reordering  of his affections has to do with his decision to  stage Vanya as “an intimate performance with  limited seating”—approximately 50 people  sitting onstage. No proscenium arrangement  here, where the stage traditionally separates  back curtain and orchestra pit. Just the cast  and the lucky people who manage to snag  advance tickets. “Run, don’t walk,” he advises.  Chekhov, says Hamilton, has also always  been a staple of his teaching, both as a private coach and via Skype all over the country,  because the monologues and scenes encourage  an enhanced appreciation of the text.

He traces  his particular decision to do Vanya, however, to  an interview Charlie Rose conducted with the  actor, Wallace Shawn and the director, Andre Gregory (My Dinner with André) about the  short-lived, rehearsal-workshop Vanya they  did on a bare stage 20 years ago, with actors in street clothes, and before an invited audience  of only 12. But it was Louis Malle’s ingenious  film about that experiment—its conception,  development and performance—called  Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street—that became  memorable. In thinking about Malle, Hamilton  saw a great opportunity to “let the play speak  for itself,” though he’s eager to speak about the  special pleasures such a production can offer.  “Theatre often lacks authenticity…by design,”  Hamilton has said, but “when two people on  stage engage in an intimate scene about the  most private issue and, for the sake of the  audience in the last row of the mezzanine, they  face front and yell what should be the most  private of exchanges in order to be heard,” the  result is often a “destructive stretch of faith”  and of emotional truth.

Certainly, the most  important consideration was finding the right cast, “85% of a director’s job.” It wasn’t until  mid-November that Hamilton was able to  “tempt” the veteran actor Fred Melamed into  playing Vanya, a man of middle age caught  between disappointment and despair but not  beyond ironic self-indictment. In addition to  Melamed, the production also features Rachel  Feldman, Herb Foster, Alicia St. Louis, Janet  Sarno, Daniel Becker and Delphi Harrington.  (Hamilton will also act, in addition to direct.)

Of course, Chekhov lovers know that all  of the dramas written by the good doctor  (Chekhov earned a medical degree when he  was 24, and went on first to write short stories)  present challenges for a director, not least  of which is choosing the right translation.  Chekhov’s style—simple dialogue but full  of telling repetitions, pauses, comic asides,  sentimental outcries and non-sequiturs—  has always seemed evocative of late 19th  century Russia at a time when the hard lines  between the classes were breaking down, and,  in more recent productions, of a modern, moody  disconnectedness. Hamilton says he decided on  a translation by Paul Schmidt because it had  the “most presence” as a text—“dutiful to the  original story and with a “contemporary feel…  an American tone.”

He was particularly concerned about getting  “intelligent and skilled actors” who would see  the humor in Uncle Vanya—“the pathos speaks  for itself.”  Vanya is, arguably, a tricky play to  stage well because of the invitation to succumb  to its dark and sardonic—one might even  venture cynical—moments. There’s the play’s  quietly desperate last line, “We shall rest,”  which comes in the wake of the dissolution  of Serebriakoff’s estate and the dispersal of  family and friends forever. How will Hamilton  tease out the comic elements? Come and see.  May 3-20, www.guildhall.org or www.theatermania.com. 1-866-811-4111 or starting  May 3 631-324-4050. $25, members $23,  students $10.

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