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Theater review: Uncle Vanya



With the Fed and BP expecting all us media folk to cool it for awhile on oil-and-water analogies, let me say that the artistic affinity I expected between director James Cartee and the Russian czar of tragicomedy, Anton Chekhov, to be no closer than chalk and cheese. The prospect of Cartee and the fight-club, reservoir-dog guerillas who populate his Citizens of the Universe tackling Uncle Vanya certainly didn't galvanize the COTU company's fanbase, judging by the turnout at Story Slam for last Friday's late-night performance.

As it turns out, the friction between Cartee's hellbent approach to theatre and Chekhov's legendary subtlety proves to be rather fruitful. Instead of fussing with exquisite balances or emphasizing the protagonists' poignant missed opportunities, Cartee glorifies the eccentricities of Chekhov's characters and the comedy. Rather than reminding us of the glowing bittersweetness we find in Chekhov's other masterworks -- The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, and The Seagull -- this Vanya tends to evoke the outrageous absurdities we find in such one-act farces as "The Bear" and "A Marriage Proposal."

Keying the shift from subtlety to absurdity is Colby Davis, wearing his heart and entrails on his sleeve as he bellows the hurts, the frustrations, and the hypochondria of Vanya between slurps from a whisky flask. He has adored Yelena Serebryakov for years, but she is married to a far older man, The Professor, whose scholarly pretensions Vanya has financed since the days of Prof. Serebryakov's prior marriage to Vanya's sister. Besides, Yelena is piously devoted to her decrepit Professor and far more attracted to the busy family doctor, Astrov. The visiting Professor's daughter, who manages the estate with Vanya, has been carrying a torch for Astrov that burns no less brightly than Vanya's for Yelena.

It's complicated.

Nobody else is quite as high-energy as Davis, but the eccentricity among other key characters is layered so thick that this drama-queen Vanya isn't anything close to a total misfit. As the Professor, Jim Esposito parades onto the stage from the Slam lobby with all the ostentation of a Roman Caesar and presides over his sickroom like a spoiled sultan. Studded with enough face and tongue jewelry to outglitter Liberace, Zannah Kimbrel rubs against Sonia's desire to transcend her physical plainness with a funky Central Avenue ferocity. And with outré props and costuming by Cartee, Charlotte Hampton as Vanya's mother hardly even dabbles in sanity. As for the impoverished landowner Telegin, we get a free-range interpretation as Cartee lets James Lee Walker III play his harmonica.

The COTU guerilla swagger is there from the outset. Off to one side of the Story Slam platform, Davis is half-buried on a couch as Vanya sleeps off his latest binge. On the other side, Cartee mans the rudimentary sound system, cuing the occasional cricket while clad in a greatcoat that could very well have been ripped off the back of a true Russian wino.

While Annette Saunders doesn't pass for 27 as Yelena, she has all the starchy devotion to the Professor you could ask, and there's enough allure left to warrant Vanya's adoration. She is aptly paired with Lou Delassadro as Astrov, who turns out to have more than a medical interest in Yelena's well-being. With Saunders and Delassandro, the tender romantic heart of Chekhov and the elegant demeanor are preserved.

Unsettling for the Stanislavsky purists, but great fun.

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