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Uncle Vanya
Antaeus Theatre Company
Review by Terry Morgan

Arye Gross and Shannon Lee Clair
Uncle Vanya is my favorite Chekhov play. I had the good fortune of seeing a London production in 1988 with Michael Gambon and Jonathan Pryce that was superb, but I've always enjoyed the play, finding it funny and touching and true. This remains so for the new production by the Antaeus Theatre Company, one of the foremost practitioners of classical work in the Los Angeles area, and it showcases terrific acting from a strong ensemble. (Note that Antaeus double-casts its productions: this is a review of the "Vixens" cast.) However, Robin Larsen's direction, usually so astute, seems misjudged in a couple of significant ways here.

The story is the same, although Annie Baker's adaptation, featuring a literal translation from the Russian, makes it seem even sadder than before. Middle-aged Vanya (Arye Gross) spent most of his life working on the family farm to make enough money to support the academic career of his famous brother Serebryakov (Harry Groener). Said brother has moved back to the country with his beautiful young wife Yelena (Rebecca Mozo) and the lifestyle juxtaposition is making everyone miserable. Serebryakov's daughter Sonya (Shannon Lee Clair) is pining for country doctor Astrov (Andrew Borba), Astrov is attracted to Yelena, and Vanya has finally realized he wasted his youth propping up a brother who simply used him.

Gross' impressive performance illuminates the stage with the bleak light of a star collapsing in on itself, emitting sudden blasts of energy and rage before succumbing to inevitable darkness. His Vanya is an engine fueled by anger and self-loathing in equal measure, and watching Gross find all of the shadings between those extremes is exhilarating. Borba brings a welcome vivacity and humor to the show as Astrov, but Clair's Sonya seems entirely too accepting of her fate, which diminishes her final speech a bit.

Mozo is terrific as the bored siren Yelena, watching with a mixture of mild amusement and disgust as various men dash themselves upon the rocks to reach her. One nice thing about her performance (and perhaps this is highlighted more in the Baker adaptation) is that Yelena is not portrayed as a heedless temptress; she is just as much a victim as those who long for her, and ultimately she isn't much happier. Groener isn't onstage for very long as Serebryakov, but he makes every moment count, strolling about in a filigreed bubble of oblivious solipsism. And yet, as misguided and selfish as the character is, Groener gives his speech of "I still want to live" an unvarnished, painful honesty.

I am a big admirer of director Robin Larsen's work, particularly her revelatory take on A Delicate Balance last year, and she gets fantastic performances from her cast here. Unfortunately, her staging and pacing of the show feels static, as if the lassitude of the characters has taken over the production. Michael B. Raiford's indiscriminate set doesn't help matters, different wall types and colors put together like several sets combined for an aesthetic experiment.

The thing that really stands out as a mistake, however, is Larsen's regrettable inclusion of strolling musicians. Not only do Marvin Etzioni's songs add little to the show except running time, but they also undercut one of the loveliest ending speeches in theatre history, following Sonya's devastating yet lyrical hope for the future with an undistinguished ditty. And that, as Chekhov would no doubt appreciate, is both a comedy and a tragedy.

Uncle Vanya plays at the Antaeus Theater, 5112 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood, through December 6, 2015. Tickets and info are available at

The Antaeus Theatre Company presents Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Robin Larsen. Music Direction by Marvin Etzioni. Lighting Designer, Leigh Allen; Scenic Design, Michael B. Raiford; Costume Design, Jocelyn Hublau Parker; Sound Design, Christopher Moscatiello; Production Stage Manager, Kristin Weber.

Serebryakov : Harry Groener
Yelena : Rebecca Mozo
Sonya : Shannon Lee Clair
Maria : Mimi Cozzens
Vanya : Arye Gross
Astrov : Andrew Borba
Telegin : Clay Wilcox
Marina : Dawn Didawick
Yefim : John Allee

Photo by Karianne Flaathen

- Terry Morgan

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