August 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Decadent drama

‘Uncle Vanya’
Through Aug. 27
Sydney Theater Company
The Kennedy Center

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in ‘Uncle Vanya.’ (Photo courtesy of Sydney Theater Company)

Only a few big movies stars shine onstage like they do on screen. Cate Blanchett is one of them. She proved this to local audiences two summers ago with her compelling portrayal of Blanche Dubois in Sydney Theatre Company’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Now she’s back at the Kennedy Center confirming her sizable gift as beautiful Yelena in the company’s take on Anton Chekhov’s classic tragicomedy, “Uncle Vanya.”

Staged by Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, it’s an original, bold production that bursts with antic energy, laughter, sadness and self-imposed misery. Blanchett and the rest of the excellent nine-person ensemble cast take chances plumbing the material for all its humor and pathos and the results are terrific.

From her first entrance, Blanchett’s Yelena makes it painfully obvious that country life is not for her. With her white cat-eye framed sunglasses and silk scarf, she is dressed more for paparazzi dodging than walking the grounds of a crumbling estate in the summer heat. Her much older husband, professor Serebryokav (John Bell), looks equally out of place in his citified trench coat and galoshes. Indeed, they’d both prefer to be in town, but straightened circumstances dictate otherwise.

The estate is run by plain and stalwart Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), the professor’s daughter with his late first wife, and her unhappy Uncle Vanya (a marvelously depressed Richard Roxburgh). Vanya was once the professor’s biggest fan working tirelessly on the estate so the professor could concentrate on loftier pursuits, but no more. Vanya has grown disillusioned with his ex-idol. At 47, he feels cheated by life. Making matters worse Vanya is in love with the professor’s beautiful wife.

Totally bored and indifferent to her husband, Yelena alternates from icily poised to warm and almost goofy, but mostly she is restless. And while Vanya’s romantic advances repulse her, she does feel something for the visiting doctor Astrov (played superbly by Hugo Weaving, best known for the film, “The Adventures Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”). Though coarsened by a decade of hard work and vodka, Astrov remains charming and sensitive. Forward thinking like the playwright (Chekhov was also a physician), the doctor is obsessed with preventing the deforestation of the countryside. In fact, he delivers a monologue with a strong environmental message that strongly resonates today more than a century later.

Regardless of Astrov’s recommendation that Russians spare trees and extract fuel from the earth, a workman can be seen frequently chopping wood in the background. And despite (or because of) the doctor’s aversion to felled trees, Zsolt Khell’s set is mostly timber. The interior of the formerly grand but now rundown house is backed by a huge wall of weathered planks and firewood is stacked here and there.

Working from a lively adaptation by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband with whom she runs Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company), Ascher rather brilliantly moves the action from turn-of-the-century Tsarist Russia to mid-1950s Soviet Union. There is no romantic descent into genteel poverty or hope for the future. The atmosphere is more stultifying than ever: as pesky flies drone, radio static hums,  the household grows increasingly on edge, ultimately erupting in bursts of violence. And when they’re not fighting, the extended family goes in for demonstrations of remorse, friendship and passion. Also included throughout are some very funny uncomfortable silences, pratfalls and drunken interludes, but nothing feels the least forced when executed by this top-notch group of Aussie actors.

Tall and slim with chicly styled white-blonde hair, Blanchett stands out like a bright light and Györgyi Szakács’ gorgeous costumes only up the wattage. While the others sport baggy earth tones, her Yelena draws attention in a tight red dress and is equally fetching in the crisp gray traveling suit she wears to give the doctor a bracing farewell kiss before beating a hasty exit back to the city.


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