BWW Reviews: Round House Breathes Fresh Air Into UNCLE VANYA

By: Apr. 16, 2015
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Ryan Rilette (Mikhail Lvovich Astrov), Mitchell Hebert (Ivan Petrovich
Voinitsky), Mark Jaster (Ilya Ilyich Telegin), and Nancy Robinette
(Marina) in Round House Theatre's current production UNCLE
VANYA. Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Armed with a new, more relevant, adaptation by Annie Baker, director John Vreeke has pulled together a lively and energetic take on Chekov that is a hilarious as it is heartbreaking. A great team of designers and extraordinary cast has made Round House Theatre's take on UNCLE VANYA a highlight of the season.

Anton Chekov's timeless dive into the emotions of a dysfunctional family revolves around the deep seated loves, attractions and resentments that cause the unhappiness of its main characters. Set entirely in the country estate owned by Sonya, a young and lonely woman, the story follows her Uncle Vanya, who lives and works with her on the estate, as he is gradually pushed closer and closer to a mental breakdown when his pompous brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov and his wife Yelena invite themselves over to stay.

Audiences walking into the theater are immediately greeted by a breathtaking set by Misha Kachman. Sonya's country house is filled with chairs, tables, books, odds and ends. Immense and detailed, the set is as easy to get lost in as the scenes themselves. Playing with some of the show's themes, the house is invaded by trees, adding even more to gawk at. With leaves appearing on the ground in the second act, and a constantly evolving light design by Colin K. Bills, VANYA remains aesthitically intriguing throughout the night. Round House is utilizing two vomitoriums, (corridors leading from the stage to beneath the audience), which invites a lot of variety to entrances and exits, but also sometimes makes them unnecessarily long and loud. Costumes by Ivania Stack are incredibly intricate; each is a reflection of not only who the characters are, but who they want to be. Every costume change represents a point in the characters arch.

Joy Zinoman (Maria Vasilyevna Voinitskaya), Mark Jaster (Ilya Ilyich Telegin), Mitchell Hébert (Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Yelena Andreyevna), Nancy Robinette (Marina), Kimberly Gilbert (Sophia Alexandrovna), and Jerry Whiddon (Alexander Vladimirovich Serebrayakov) in Round House Theatre's current production of UNCLE VANYA. Photo by Danisha Crosby

Vreeke's blocking is so deliberate that arguments play out like choreographed dances; the drama is spoken and the movements are subtle. Everything about this performance feels fresh, the very opposite of any notion of Chekov as depressing Russian melodrama. An added layer to this production is the original music performed onstage by Eric Shimelonis, who also plays Yefim, and Mark Jaster who also plays Waffles. Jaster plays harmonica and Shimelonis juggles the accordian and piano, (sometimes at the same time), creating a unique sound for this production that is completely indispensable.

Interestingly enough, the cast is full of director-actors, including Round House Co-founder and former Producing Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon as the Professor. Mitchell Hebert brings humor and wit to a very sympathetic portrayal of Uncle Vanya, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey is an unstoppable powerhouse as Yelena. Every facial expression and gesture from Nancy Robinette thrilled the audience in her turn as Marina, and Ryan Rilette, current Producing Artistic Director, as the Doctor and Joy Zinoman as Vanya's mother round out the very talented performers. And then there's Kimberly Gilbert as Sonya who is anything but plain and puts on the most heartfelt and touching performance of the production. Gilbert has a truly unmatched stage presence, and never is the audience more entranced than in the silences between her words.

Altogether, this remarkable cast, director, and design team have created a show that feels almost too funny and entertaining for its source material. Constantly refusing to be bleak, Vreeke and company have crafted a heartfelt VANYA that is true to the emotions of the play while being completely entertaining, and in the crowded field of Chekov adaptations around town this season, Round House carves out its own beautiful country estate.

Mitchell Hebert (Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky) and Kimberly Gilbert (Sophia Alexandrovna) in Round House Theatre's current production of UNCLE VANYA. Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Runs approximately 2.5 hours with one 15 minute intermission.

UNCLE VANYA runs through May 3, 2015 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda (one block from Wisonsin Ave. and Metro's Bethesda station). Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm. Wednesdays through Fridays offer the best availability. (Please note that there is no performance on April 14.)


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