BWW Review: At The Public's Under The Radar Festival, New Saloon's MINOR CHARACTER Riffs on a Chekhov Classic
At the commencement of MINOR CHARACTER, New Saloon's offering at The Public Theater's 2019 Under The Radar Festival, actor Madeline Wise stands downstage center, faces the audience and, with barely any body movement or facial expressions, begins rattling off the lines of various characters from the opening scene of Anton Chekhov's classic comedy of life's futility, UNCLE VANYA.
As directed by Morgan Green, there is no distinction between characters in her presentation, with more focus on the rhythms of the words. Physical motions are added, and repeated, though she remains in her upstage center position. Emotions give way to sounds and visuals.
Eventually she's joined by Milo Cramer, who stands to her right, facing out at the audience, speaking the lines of the title character as a flamboyant neurotic. Joining them in line is Rona Figueroa, wearing a fiery red wig, speaking the lines of Vanya's elderly mother, without a hint of trying to age the appearance of the much younger performer.
Ron Domingo, Fernando Gonzalez, LaToya Lewis and Caitlin Morris also take their places in the line playing the residents and visitors of the country estate that provides the play's setting. When New York stage treasure David Greenspan enters in a wheelchair, playing the retired university professor who took ownership of the estate after the death of his wife, the staging takes on a more realistic approach, although nothing about MINOR CHARACTER should be regarded in any way as conventional.
The text of the piece is taken from six different English translations of Chekhov's masterwork, which was first published in his native Russian in 1898. The oldest is by Marian Fell, published in the early 20th Century. Later versions used are by Laurence Senelick, Paul Schmidt, Carol Rocamora and cast member Cramer. There's even a translation supplied by entering the original Russian into Google Translate.
With the exception of Greenspan, who plays Alexander Serebryakov throughout, the actors spend the 85-minute play switching off on who's playing who, sometimes with costume pieces signaling that multiple actors are playing the same roles simultaneously.
The script also jumps from translation to translation, sometimes emphasizing how the same Russian text can be worded differently by different English authors in different generations. There are also a few musical moments, including a fine ensemble chorale.
If the intention here is to show how the English language has evolved through the past 100+ years, it doesn't quite come through since, aside from the occasional starkly contemporary phrasing, there's no clear difference between the translations made apparent.
It helps to be familiar with the source play in advance, but newcomers to UNCLE VANYA should be able to catch the gist of how the professor, who married the much younger Yelana after his first wife passed on, is oblivious to the sacrifices made by his daughter Sonya and her Uncle Vanya, who is the son of his first wife's mother, to keep the estate running. Likewise, the handsome doctor Astrov is oblivious of Sonya's affection for him.
MINOR CHARACTER can best be seen as an abstract riff on a classic. The concept may wear thin after a while, but, as performed by a very enthused company, it's the kind of enjoyable off-beat fun that downtown festivals thrive on.