An earlier workshop production of Minor Character had the subtitle “Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time”. The subtitle feels pretty essential to understanding what’s going on here: An ensemble of eight actors, seven of them changing roles constantly—and with as many as three actors playing the same role at the same time—are running multiple translations of Chekhov’s play, versions that range from the early twentieth century to up-to-the-minute modern translations by playwright Milo Cramer (one of New Saloon’s core members; he also appears in this production) and Google Translate. Sometimes, multiple actors play the same role at the same time; sometimes, an individual actor repeats the same moment three different ways, like a glitching videotape. Some of the multiplied phrasings are almost identical; with others, the adjectives convey subtle differences; on rarer occasions, sentence structure and connotations shift more dramatically. Still, none of it strays too far from the canonical Uncle Vanya.
It’s a surprisingly solid Vanya, in fact, considering that it’s a patchwork quilt of a script (that, as noted above, is partly written by Google Translate) stripped down to barely more than 90 minutes long, and that’s with most of the lines in it being repeated two or three (or more) times. Director Morgan Green and the ensemble, aided by the inherent absurdism of the repetition structure, find a slightly manic rhythm that brings out the wry comedy in a way you don’t always see in American productions of Vanya (of Chekhov in general, really), which tend to lean into the melancholy, claustrophobic stasis. The stylization they use to clarify which set of actors are playing which character at any given moment amps up the daffiness in a way that works, too: specific, matching costume pieces, worn over whatever else an actor has on (a fur shrug for gold-digging stepmother Yelena; a yellow rain poncho for the impoverished landowner cum handyman Waffles; a headscarf and rubber gloves for the lovelorn drudge Sonya), and equally specific physical gestures.
The performances are generally strong; the actors double- and triple-teaming the same role in the same scene are perfect refracting mirrors, replicating inflections while at the same time adding specific and unique shadings line by line. (The same is true when a given actor repeats the same line three different ways; the intention is the same for each, and yet subtle differences arise.) The only performer who never role-shifts is David Greenspan as Aleksandr Serebryakov, the pompous retired professor who lives off the proceeds of a country estate that really belongs to his daughter. He’s the person in the play blessed (or cursed, depending on one’s perspective) with a blissful lack of introspection. Greenspan, as ever, takes relish in the foibles of the character he’s portraying; he makes a character who all too frequently is nothing but a buffoon slyly enjoyable. I found Madeline Wise and Rona Figueroa especially compelling, particularly as the characters Astrov and Yelena, reluctant to admit an attraction to each other.
The sameness-in-difference of the texts is underscored by the physical disparities among role-sharing actors; there’s delight in seeing the same role simultaneously embodied by three performers of disparate ages, races, genders, and general physical appearances, just as there’s pathos in seeing the same destructive, sad patterns recur over and over. Chekhov’s characters to tend to perseverate, to get stuck in their habits and their troubles, and we see that literalized here. They’re all introspecting so hard that they lose the ability to see themselves; they become—except for the self-absorbed Serebryakov—minor characters in their own stories.
The doubling and the retreading of lines does feel very Chekhovian, I’m not sure it actually illuminates the play in a meaningful way. There’s not quite enough difference among the versions to give the performers a real way to take a different path for a character, to have a different intention or a different outcome. In fact. The piece is often most effective when it’s simplest; when it’s closest to simply being Chekhov rather than trying to force a rethinking of Chekhov.
Which is no small feat: there are so many moments, coming at you fast and from all corners as the actors shift roles, that embody the tragicomedy that Chekhov does better than just about anyone else. As a jigsaw puzzle of Chekhov, it’s charming, witty, and even oddly moving. But it feels like Minor Character wants to be more than creditable Chekhov, and it never quite rose to that level for me.