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Under The Radar Festival Review: ‘Minor Character,’ a Brilliant Twist on Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

Under The Radar Festival, New Saloon, Minor Character, The Public Theater

Under The Radar Festival, New Saloon’s ‘Minor Character’ (New Saloon)

Uncle Vanya is Chekhov’s masterwork that is Four Acts, hours long and requires tremendous acting and interesting staging, as the play is interior and the character development intricately opaque. In New Saloon’s humorous iteration of the classic play in a varied English language translation that “becomes” Minor Character defies the stodgy, fusty tradition of  the Chekhov century-old drama. It turns gender on its head with great humor. And it elicits the characters and the plot purely for the genius of being lightening-like electric. As an added benefit, Chekhov’s profound insights are clarified. Noting the foolishness of our human selves is sheer delight.

If you know and have seen a good version of Uncle Vanya or two or three, you will enjoy New Saloon’s helter-skelter, explosion of humor and dolor in random order. Are you familiar with Chekhov’s hypersonic, beating breast misery and his characters’ static flatline of life ending before its begun? If so, you will enjoy the outrageous spin on Chekhov’s characters and the whip-saw dialogue which borders on Theatre of the Absurd. If you are a “current” modernist, you will love it as I did. I recommend you get a ticket immediately, because it will be there at The Public Theater and gone before you can recite the alphabet backward.

Why is Minor Character a must-see? For one, it’s the way the ensemble (Mile Cramer, Ron Domingo, Rona Figueroa, Fernando Gonzalet, David Greenspan, LaToya Lewis, Caitlin Morris, Madeline Wise) seamlessly negotiates the extreme variations of pacing, dialogue twists and turns and fluid staging. Not only does the wild production reveal an acutely clever director in Morgan Green, but the performers demonstrate solid acting chops and musicality.

To segue a bit, their vocal skills are notable. The music and songs appear pointedly and effectively. They reflect the  haunting evocation of Chekhov’s themes and relate the music of the soul and heart of the characters. The music composed by Deepali Gupta with Music Direction by Robert Frost is in fine contrast to the dialogue and one of the highpoints of Minor Character. Of course the mundane dialogue is one of the key points of the human condition that Chekhov extends in Uncle Vanya. So much of what the characters say, as so much of what we say is inconsequential, repetitive, without emotion and unworthy of listening to. And ironically, this is why people are not particularly good listeners. There is nothing much of value that anyone says. Minor Character reveals this in spades, in 85 minutes. Bravo!

Notably, when the ensemble sings, we listen, we record, we empathize, we know. The tonal harmonies in the minor keys of some songs resonate with our nerve fibers and quell the jarring character clashes of language because the actors live in the music. The melodies are gorgeous. And we feel that like the whirlwind emotions of Sonya, Yelena, the Doctor, Uncle Vanya, Professor Alexander and the others, we are the “minor characters” whose lives come and go without our making one wave of excitation in the movement of the stars. Nevertheless, the music of our hearts is universal and aligns with the spheres as Johannes Kepler intimated.

The actors are superb. Their timing, quirkiness bar none. How they and don and take off their character mantles and costumes is richly varied. Their zaniness elucidates the characters of Uncle Vanya in their weird reminiscence of the bleeps and burps of language on Social Media. Additionally the sameness of the characters’ love dance, the miseries and depressions of the human condition are emphasized and experienced carefully by the actors in a chaos like musical chairs as they embrace a multiplicity of roles.

Sonya’s revelation of her love for the Doctor is echoed by three inverted gender couples concurrently. The theme of recognition that the central characters like  the narrator of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” will never be Hamlet-like protagonists, but will only “swell a scene of two,” is also echoed in threes by three sets of actors. However,  Yelena’s and the Doctor’s intimation of a meet up which most probably will never occur, at the conclusion of the production is singular. Indeed, a couple’s love begins in particularity. It is only after the relationship achieves its peak, then like a canker worm, the sameness and repetitiveness of misery takes over with the acute result that “the bloom is off the rose.” In a banal finality the once “love-struck” couple manifests the most ridiculous foolishness and boredom after all is said and done.

Under The Radar Festival, New Saloon, Minor Character, The Public Theater

Under The Radar Festival, New Saloon’s ‘Minor Character, the ensemble, The Public Theater (New Saloon)

As in Chekhov given an uplift by New Saloon’s actors and director, romantic hope dances on the wind. It is pregnant with expectation, as all romances begin filled with excitement, longing and anticipation. The most wonderful of relationships as Minor Character and Uncle Vanya suggest happen in the imagination; thus Sonya doesn’t want to know if the Doctor cares for her or not, at one point. She is thrilled to live in hope. Until…

What I particularly enjoyed about Minor Character is how Morgan Green and the actors risk landing on their heads in an epic fail and of course, land on their feet accumulating an excess of success. The seemingly clever abandon and aplomb that each of them embraces reveal precision, exceptional skill, and prodigious talent. In their downright foolish costumes (the mock fur capes worn by female characters despite the actor’s gender), and robes which clue us in to Chekhov’s characterization of Vanya, etc., the portraits of their motley humanity gradually manifest.  Indeed, sometimes to realize the greatness of a classic, one must extrapolate to the end of the continuum of absurdity as New Saloon has done with this production. When one can go no further, there is a crystallization of understanding and epiphany. Whether 100+ years ago or today, human beings are the most stupidly adorable of all creatures.

Kudos to the following creatives: Deepali Gupta (Composer) Robert Frost (Music Director), Kristen Robinson (Scenic Designer) Alice Tavener (Costume Designer) Masha Tsimring (Lighting Designer) M. Florian Staab (Sound Designer) and all the translators.

Minor Character at the Public Theater celebrates Chekhov’s wit and humor taking it to an extraordinary level as profound themes glide under the surface of our laughter. You can ride the waves of fun including the variant English translations of character dialogue with the marvelous cast on the following dates and times.

5 January (Saturday) at 10 PM, 6 January (Sunday) at 9 PM, 9 January (Wednesday) 5:30, 8:30 PM, 11 January (Friday) 10 PM, 12 January (Saturday) 1:30 PM, 13 January (Sunday) 6:00 PM, 9:30 PM.

For tickets go to their website at The Public Theater.

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