Anton Checkhov’s language is so rooted in the place and time it was written that contemporary productions often walk a treacherous line: They must not be overly reverent, didacticly aping some agreed-upon standard of period Russianness, nor seem so contemporary that characters’ actions and emotions become decontextualized nonsense. Target Margin Theater tackles these challenges by highlighting them at every turn, marking strange pauses, emphasizing archaic phrases, and inserting dance-like movements and gestures throughout their new production of “Uncle Vanya” at HERE (through May 19). This exercise could be insufferable in the wrong hands, but with this ensemble, it’s wildly successful.
As if to signal the production’s divergence from period-appropriate décorum, the black box theater features just a two-foot-wide sliver of the comfortable country estate where the play is set. The narrow strip of tastefully papered wall and parquet flooring — accessorized by set designer Laura Jellinek with a taxidermied bear — reflects the playful approach to the drama, which the cast wrote as a team, pulling from multiple translations and improvised rehearsals. The result is a swift yet improbably faithful staging. The actors hone in on the play’s themes of spoiled idealism and gnawing regret while gently making light of the at times absurd, at times crushing narrative.
Vanya (Greig Sargeant), caretaker to Professor Serebryakov’s (Mary Neufeld) estate, bemoans the disruptive effect of the aging scholar’s visit on the retreat’s staff, disdainfully watching his employer “prancing around the landscape like a rockstar.” The clashes between deeply disillusioned Vanya and senile and achy Serebryakov drive much of the action, with the rest largely fueled by a frustrated love triangle between the professor’s new wife Helena (Rebecca Hart), the country doctor Astrov (Edward O’Blenis), and the professor’s daughter Sonya (Susan Hyon). One element of the original text that proves especially prescient is Dr. Astrov’s quasi-mystic radical environmentalism, which is especially heightened here during a presentation on deforestation. But even in such a potentially overbearing passage the actors open up the text — even, sometimes, make it funny.
Their facility with the language and leaden plot — which has characters frequently picking over their many sublimated desires during introspective soliloquies — heightens the emotional richness of Checkhov’s text. Here, as with last season’s “Tempest,” Target Margin’s willingness to take on a challenging play by emphasizing rather than smoothing over its difficult aspects has paid off. This ain’t your uncle’s “Vanya,” but Checkhov would undoubtedly approve.