Bedlam

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet feature image

Bedlam, the estimable theater company founded in 2012, has a reputation for reinvigorating classic texts with a combination of raw energy and incisive interpretation. At its best, Bedlam distills a work to its bare essence using a small cast to reveal the play’s soul, which apparently had always been hiding in plain sight. Their production of Saint Joan, for instance, employed just four actors and revealed the vigor and immediacy within Shaw’s verbosity. The same four actors performed Hamlet as a giddy romp that also succeeded in finding new depths of pathos and urgency. And their adaptation of Sense and Sensibility managed to plumb the theatricality from Jane Austen’s 19th-century novel with 21st-century showmanship.

Bedlam’s latest production, Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, described in the show’s publicity as a mash-up of Uncle Vanya and Romeo and Juliet, takes a different approach. Rather than burrowing into the separate plays for new subtextual insights, the adaptation by Kimberly Pau looks outside of the texts for inspiration. The dramaturgical merging attempts to show how the classic works complement each other through their über-textual parallels. The final result, unfortunately, is as ungainly as the show’s title. The production ultimately numbs Chekhov’s aching anguish and neuters Shakespeare’s romantic poetry.

Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and Eric Tucker as Astrov in Kimberly Pau’s  Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet.  Top: Zuzanna Szadkowski as Yelena/Juliet and Edmund Lewis as Vanya/Romeo.

Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and Eric Tucker as Astrov in Kimberly Pau’s Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet. Top: Zuzanna Szadkowski as Yelena/Juliet and Edmund Lewis as Vanya/Romeo.

Actually, the mash-up designation is rather misleading. While one might expect this appellation to be a classical cocktail mixed with equal parts Vanya and equal parts Romeo and Juliet, the primary focus is essentially on the former. Pau has provided a script that is a generally faithful version of Chekhov’s play with just two eliminated characters (Vanya’s mother and Sonya’s former nanny), but the rest of the existentially afflicted individuals are all present.

For the first two thirds of Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, directed by Eric Tucker, audiences can expect a fairly straightforward interpretation of Chekhov’s masterwork. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the lives of Vanya (Edmund Lewis) and Sonya (Susannah Millonzi) are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Sonya’s father and pedantic professor, Serebryakov (Randolph Curtis Rand), and his young wife, Yelena (Zuzanna Szadkowski). Astrov (Tucker), the neighboring doctor and dabbler in botany, has become a permanent fixture in the home, and his passionate love for Yelena wreaks emotional havoc on the household.

Vanya also loves Yelena, and both Sonya and Yelena love Astrov, and although no one dies as a result of star-crossed passions, their fates are even worse: except for the haughty professor, the characters will presumably live in eternal misery and loneliness.

In Bedlam fashion the proceedings are punctuated with cheeky anachronisms and choreographed chaos. When Vanya threatens Serebryakov with a gun, for example, the characters scream that he is “going postal,” and Yelena has a momentary daydream/dance break underscored by the 1980s lovers’ anthem, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Moments of emotional turmoil are highlighted with actors forcefully rolling set pieces into and out of the playing space. (John McDermott’s scenic design, which playfully creates a Russian estate with moveable birch trees, office furniture, and an iconic samovar, is spot-on.)

Tucker and Szadkowski. Photographs by Ashley Garrett.

Tucker and Szadkowski. Photographs by Ashley Garrett.

The Romeo and Juliet tangents offer little in the way of emotional or intellectual illumination. At times, there are moments of cleverness, such as in a reference to Vanya’s dream. This prompts Astrov to metamorphose into Mercutio and recite his well-known Queen Mab monologue. There is also an extended riff late in the play in which Vanya fantasizes about killing Serebryakov, and the characters assume an alternative reality. Vanya/Romeo and Yelena/Juliet are romantically tragic in ways that undercuts the quotidian tragedy that Chekhov presents.

If the amalgamation does not effectively serve Chekhov’s and Shakespeare’s works, the five-member ensemble (with an on-stage musician, John Coyne, who masterfully accompanies the cast in periodic Russian folksongs) tears into the material. Alternating between rough-and-tumble acting and broad comedy, each actor also has quiet moments to show the sense of solitude just under the surface.

Les Dickert’s impressive lighting (with a special nod to the birch trees with red fairy lights) and Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s mix of contemporary and period-inflected costumes (including putting Yelena/Juliet in a white wedding dress for most of the second act) provide a waking dreamlike quality to the proceedings.

Chekhov purists might be more inclined to see the current production of Uncle Vanya across town at Hunter College. Richard Nelson’s spare, quiet production seems more radical in its simplicity. The Bedlam production needlessly and regrettably complicates the play with its infusion of dramatic schizophrenia.

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet plays through Oct. 28 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd St. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For a performance calendar and tickets, visit bedlam.org.

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Peter Pan

Peter Pan

The boy who wouldn’t grow up has become the character who won’t die. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has been endlessly staged, filmed, remixed, twisted, and contorted since its 1904 premiere at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, and the insatiable Pan pangs show no sign of ceasing. Bedlam’s current adaptation at another Duke, on 42nd Street, is the second Peter Pan–inspired show to run on the Deuce this season.

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Shakespeare With Tears

You’re not ever likely to see a staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream similar to that at the Pearl Theatre Company, a co-production with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. That’s almost certainly a blessing. Directed by Eric Tucker of Bedlam, a company known for its pared-down renderings of classics—including a powerful Saint Joan and Hamlet—A Midsummer Night’s Dream currently on the boards is a misbegotten mess. Somewhere underneath the countless irrelevancies encrusting this version may be a play about lovers, poets and fools, but despair at finding it sets in quickly.

Bedlam uses no props, so there’s a lot of miming of them; some you won’t expect. Early on, Hermia is tied up and her arms winched into the air as if she’s about to be interrogated by black-ops agents rather than Theseus. Anyone who has ever seen a traditional version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may wonder what is going on—as will anyone who hasn’t. The five actors are not only responsible for imagining their props, but they take on multiple roles and produce their own sound effects. In fact, there is so much accumulated shouting and stage business that the story barely comes through, let alone the poetry.

Tucker has introduced action to accompany virtually every line. When Egeus complains that Lysander “bewitched the bosom of my child,” Lysander air-squeezes Hermia’s imagined breasts. When Jason O’Connell’s Bottom speaks of “a tyrant,” his hands become pistols and he shoots them. O bad tyrant! Looking for his comrades, Bottom says, “Where are these hearts?” That leads O’Connell to pull an imaginary one from his chest and gnaw it like Hannibal Lecter. Everything must be illustrated, no matter how inappropriately, in this Shakespeare for Imbeciles production.

It’s not enough to pile on irrelevancies: Tucker has vulgarized the play as well. When Mark Bedard’s Oberon says, “I do but beg a little changeling boy to be my…henchman,” the pause he inserts suggests latent pedophilia. When the actors cluster together late in the play (as they often do to become scenery, though not in this case), there’s suddenly an orgiastic scene of hip-thrusting intercourse and tongue work. When Puck returns to Oberon with the flower love-in-idleness, he doesn’t have it in hand. Oh, no, it’s down his throat so he can hawk loudly and puke it out!

Amid this goulash, Nance Williamson shows the best command of poetry, both as the brusque Hippolyta and lumbering Helena. Bedard recites the verse clearly enough, but doesn't quite find the music in it. O’Connell is egregiously irritating as Puck, Bottom, and Pyramus. As the last, he yells for Thisbe in the style of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. (He also does an impression of Al Pacino in Bottom’s “shivering shocks” speech, and they’re amusing, but unnecessary.)

The performers may be excused, given all that Tucker has taxed them with. They contribute constant sound effects and movement: weird noises, rolling around, wrestling, humming the music from Jeopardy and “The Girl from Ipanema,” grunts, clasping one another, shrieks, falling to the ground in an instant, tsk-tsks and putting on silly accents (Sean McNall’s Demetrius seems to be Spanish by way of Scotland; Bedard’s Thisbe has a Southern twang). Scarcely a sentence goes by without some enhancement. Oberon’s speech “The next thing then she waking looks upon/Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull/On meddling monkey, or on busy ape/She shall pursue it with the soul of love” cues an aural zoo as the actors contribute the sounds of each animal mentioned. But nothing is so impressive as the rare moments when the words are left to be heard on their own—Bedard’s Oberon, speaking of a “boar with bristled hair,” or Helena’s late soliloquy. It’s then one realizes what quality the actors might be capable of.

Heaped with praise by critics at the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was clearly not to the taste of a scowling woman speaking to a friend at intermission. Passing by, I overheard only the word “indefensible.” Whether it applied to those reviews or to the production itself, she was on the money.

A Midsummer Night's Dream plays through Oct. 31 at the Pearl Theatre (555 West 42nd St. between 10th and 11th Aves.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Oct. 7, 11, 12, 15, 20, 28 and 29 and at 8 p.m. on Oct. 9, 16, 17, 23 and 30. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Oct. 8, 10, 14, 17, 18, 21 and 31. For tickets, call 212- 563-9261 or visit PearlTheatre.org.

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