In More Ways Than One: A Reflection on New Saloon's Re-telling of Uncle Vanya
In the second chapter of A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart's states an essential law of theatre, of all art: "Art is violent. To be decisive is violent." In the creative process, an artist must violently eliminate all other choices for one moment in order to create something. Any good acting teacher will tell you, "this moment could be played a million different ways"! But the unfortunate truth is that you can only pick one... or at least one per night.
Or not, as the case may be.
In Minor Character, New Saloon's retelling of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, scenes explode kaleidoscopically, revealing many possible choices for the same character in the same moment. This is done spatially—with multiple actors speaking different translations of the same line, and temporally—the same actor speaking different translations of the same line one after another. New Saloon's interpretation adds complexity to a play we "theatre people" all seem to already know backwards and forwards. The company's playful sense of humor enlivens the piece and brings it up to date by staging the humor that "we" have come to think Chekhov intended.
Even with this shattered-mirror-staging, the shards of each alternate-universe end up saying the same things. After all, each translation is based on one Russian text by one Anton Chekhov. No matter how many opportunities these characters are given to do things differently, how many chances this particular retelling gives them to play out the scenes in new ways, the characters still end up dissatisfied every time.
Even the one beacon of hope Chekhov gave his characters is extinguished by Minor Character. The idea that "maybe 100 years from now they'll be happy, but not us" is nullified by frequent and insidious references to modernity. Astrov shows Yelena his maps of the deforestation on his iPad. When the Professor and Yelena finally leave the estate, we hear an engine rev, to which Astrov comments, "That's the sound of their horses leaving."
One hundred years ago they thought we'd have the answer, and yet here we are still doing the same play, though in a myriad of different ways, but we're still saying the same things.