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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
UNCLE ROMEO VANYA JULIET
at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre

MASHUP THEATER
By MATT WINDMAN

  Susannah Millonzi, Randolph Curtis Rand and Zuzanna Szadkowski/ Ph: Ashley Garrett

In April, Bedlam – the youthful, freethinking, no-frills and itinerant classical theater company that has won acclaim for productions such as Shaw’s Saint Joan (presented with just four actors) and Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility (presented on wheels) – announced that it would next present Romeo & Juliet and Uncle Vanya in repertory. It has produced plays in rep several times before (Saint Joan and Hamlet, Sense & Sensibility and The Seagull, two competing interpretations of Twelfth Night).

But in an unexpected development, Bedlam is instead producing Romeo & Juliet and Uncle Vanya as a one-sitting, simultaneous, side-by-side experimental mashup/riff under the combined, unsightly title Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet. In a press statement, artistic director Eric Tucker claimed that he saw “an opportunity to display their strong thematic sensibilities in a new way. Both plays showcase characters experiencing longing for love at different times in their lives. In Uncle Vanya they are looking back saying, how did I get here? In Romeo & Juliet they are looking forward saying, how can I get there?”

As its loyal subscribers must know by now, Bedlam has an unpredictable, hit-or-miss rate of success. The troupe may be small, but it always goes big, creating extremely uneven results. Many people swear that Bedlam’s Saint Joan was the most innovative and effective production of a Shaw play in decades. While I personally found Saint Joan to be a bit less awe-inspiring, I will admit that Sense & Sensibility was brilliant and unforgettable.

When less successful (such as with last year’s holiday-time adaptation of Peter Pan), Bedlam productions come off as intriguing but self-conscious, puzzling improvisational exercises by hardcore theater nerds for their own personal amusement – which unfortunately proves to be the case with Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet. Lately on Facebook, Bedlam has been publicly thanking the reviewers who liked the show for “getting” it (i.e. understanding and appreciating what it is going for), thus implicitly acknowledging that many others are not getting it.

Due to unexpected circumstances, I had to leave my evening performance of Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet at intermission. I returned the following day to catch act two of a matinee performance. Needless to say, explaining the situation to the understandably bewildered house manager was not so easy. But in retrospect, attending half of the show one night and the other half the next day was oddly fitting for a show comprised of half Uncle Vanya and half Romeo & Juliet (well, actually, it’s more like 2/3 Uncle Vanya and 1/3 Romeo & Juliet).

Directed by Tucker with a six-person cast (including Tucker himself as Astrov), Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet is essentially an offbeat, playful version of Uncle Vanya where the characters occasionally break out into song (“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “MacArthur Park”), frenetic movement and snippets of dialogue from Romeo & Juliet. (It reminded me of an oddball production of The Importance of Being Earnest I saw Off-Off-Broadway in 2009 where the actors added lines from various Godzilla movies.) No one can accuse Bedlam of not looking for laughs in Uncle Vanya, but the company’s approach of playing it up so aggressively makes it hard to take the characters seriously.

The mash-up approach works best whenever Vanya (Edmund Lewis) and Yelena (Zuzanna Szadkowski) suddenly morph into Romeo and Juliet, emphasizing the dichotomy between innocent youth and jaded adulthood. However, I can’t say that the Romeo & Juliet additions made any kind of meaningful contribution to Uncle Vanya (or vice versa), or that the two plays melded together into a brand-new, distinctive work.

It also does not help that Uncle Vanya has been overproduced in New York over the past decade, creating a severe basis of comparison. As it happens, Bedlam’s production is being produced simultaneously with an acclaimed revival of Uncle Vanya by the Hunter Theatre Project starring Jay O. Sanders as the title character, directed by Richard Nelson, with a translation co-authored by Nelson.

Notwithstanding Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet (or whatever it is called), Bedlam’s mash-up concept could potentially work in another context – perhaps using works by the same author, where the language would be similar and the coming together of different plays would not be so jarring. Considering the structural and thematic similarities of Chekhov’s four greatest plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard), how about a mash-up of those plays? What might that reveal?

 

 


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