The weekend before last, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister, who was visiting us that weekend, to The Guthrie Theater to see the Guthrie’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.
Josh and I had last seen a staging of “Uncle Vanya” in December 2011, when the University Of Minnesota drama department had presented “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard” in repertory (in 2011, we had caught both university Chekhov productions on the same day).
The current Guthrie production of “Uncle Vanya” was beautifully designed. Stage design, costume design, lighting design: all were faultless and of the highest quality. Stage design at The Guthrie is the finest in the world, finer even than may be seen at New York City Ballet, the Wiener Staatsoper or Britain’s National Theatre.
Alas, as I have bemoaned many times over the years, everything else at The Guthrie takes a back seat to stage design. Once the company creates and constructs a striking, imaginative and dramatically-apt series of stage settings—which always look exorbitantly expensive—the company views its work as largely complete. Nothing else at The Guthrie is at the same exalted level as the work of the design department.
The Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” was lightweight. “Uncle Vanya” is a very philosophical play, raising issues no less profound than those raised by Plato, yet the Guthrie production was facile, very much on-the-surface and one-dimensional. I would describe the production, above all, as “pleasant”—and “pleasant” is not what “Uncle Vanya” is all about.
Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of The Guthrie, directed “Uncle Vanya”. Dowling used a new translation by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Friel’s translation was a very free one, more adaptation than translation. Everything was very jokey, and not entirely dissimilar to a Neil Simon comedy—and, suitably, the audience laughed, nonstop, throughout much of the performance. I wanted to scream.
The acting ensemble was not bad, although the actor portraying the title character was not good enough to carry the role (he seemed to have dropped in from a television comedy). No one onstage offered a multi-dimensional or penetrating performance.
As stage director, Dowling is a good fund-raiser. I have yet to see a Dowling production that was in any way memorable—or even admirable. There’s a reason why Dowling gets no work in New York or London.
I pray nightly that Dowling soon announces his retirement.
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