Staging a classic play like Uncle Vanya requires a difficult balance. Often, contemporary productions of Anton Chekhov's plays either feel like nothing more than a new coat of paint on an old shed, or something unrecognizable from the source material.
But Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble manage to make the 1899 play feel fresh, but still recognizable as Uncle Vanya. Working from a new translation by Štepán Šimek, PETE's production keeps Chekhov's plot and characters intact. Uncle Vanya tells a story of class disparity between Russian "provencials" and city-dwelling Russian elites. Vanya (Jacob Coleman), Astrov (Prentice Onayemi) and Sonya (Joellen Sweeney) live and work in the country.
Their lives are full of hard work and minimal comforts. Professor Serebryakov (Victor Mack) is the owner of the house in which they all reside, a symbol of undeserved reward, of whom Vanya contemptibly says "studies things people already know." The old professor's young wife, Yelena (Amber Whitehall), becomes the object of desire for both Vanya and Astrov even though she's at one point diagnosed by Astrov as "not being interested in anything."
It's the kind of realist classic that could feel like the dramatic equivalent of eating your vegetables. But even though PETE is faithful to the source material, its reverence is far from staid. They've brought their version of the play to life with live music and imaginative staging.
The set is simultaneously ornate and drabby. Gold-leaf wallpaper surrounds a floor covered in dusty rugs and vodka bottles. Below the house lights are a dozen or so dangling lamps, and the walls that frame the stage are covered with mirrors and polished metal platters. It has an eerie effect throughout, trapping and focusing the light, imbuing the stage with a vaguely supernatural characteristic.
After seeing Uncle Vanya set to live music, it's hard to imagine the play without it. Musicians Ralph Huntley, Andrei Temkin and Courtney Von Drehle act as both house band and occasionally interact with the characters from behind keyboards and drum kits off to the side of the stage. The trio play a multitude of instruments from accordion to saxophone. Their music was an eclectic rundown that sounded like everything from Russian folk to Sigur Ros to David Mamet jazz to Zero 7.
Director Cristi Miles manages to bring everything together into one cohesive dramatic movement, making it feel thought-provoking but not laborious. As Vanya, Coleman's natural comedic ability pairs well with the deep-seated anger in the character. Joellen Sweeney is also a standout as Sonya, Vanya's niece and Serebryakov's daughter, whose outlook grows more and more bleak as the play goes on.
Often, Chekhov's plays seem like they're staged for soulless academics like Professor Serebryakov. But instead of treating Uncle Vanya with either too much or too little reverence, PETE's production simply attacks Chekhov's text with gleeful enthusiasm.
SEE IT: Uncle Vanya is at Reed College Performing Arts Building, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., petensemble.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 11-20, 7:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 21. $30.