Family Ties

Playhouse stages new version of Chekhov masterpiece
By Bridgette M. Redman
Pasadena Playhouse/Submitted Photo

Many times, the oldest of stories feel new again in a world where everything has turned upside down.

The Pasadena Playhouse is launching Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” from Wednesday, June 1, to Sunday, June 26.

Published in 1898, it is considered one of Chekhov’s masterpieces.

Director Michael Michetti feels today’s audiences, having lived through the pandemic, will relate to the themes in this piece. The play explores family dynamics and what happens when people are thrown together with very different goals.

“Uncle Vanya” takes place on a country estate, where Vanya and his niece are caring for the property. Unexpectedly, his brother-in-law and new wife show up. Passions flare, frustrations are revealed, and everyone’s life is threatened to be thrown upside down. 

This production uses a new translation, one that premiered at the Old Globe in 2018. The translators — Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — come together annually. 

Eventually, theaters commissioned them, and Theater Communications Group Books began publishing them. Their translation of “Uncle Vanya” has been widely hailed for brushing away the cobwebs and making it feel modern and conversational.

“It is faithful to the original and feels very modern and colloquial,” Michetti says. “It has all the family dynamics that we’re all used to, but there’s nothing about it that feels like its Chekhovian or Russian.”

Pasadena Playhouse wants to be known as California’s official state theater. Michetti said he and the Playhouse’s producing artistic director, Danny Feldman, spoke about the play, as it was one that he loved. 

It is his first time directing it, though he helmed the related “Anton’s Uncles” in 2012 at Boston Court Pasadena.

Feldman sees this as an important part of the theatrical canon and something that will appeal to the Playhouse’s audiences.

“In addition to producing American musicals and new works, boldly re-envisioning classic plays is core to our mission at the Playhouse,” Feldman says. 

“This new translation of ‘Uncle Vanya’ breathes new life into a theatrical masterpiece, making it perfect for fans of Chekhov or people experiencing his work for the first time.”

Michetti is committed to creating an intimate experience for audiences so they can feel what it’s like to be cooped up with a group of people who are tense about relationships and decisions. 

They’re planning to remove the first couple rows of seats so the stage is closer to the audience. Some of the playing area will be below the stage.

“I really do want the audience to feel like they’re able to be flies on a wall and eavesdropping on life as it’s being lived in front of us,” Michetti says. “So, we’re trying to create a physical base that allows that to happen.”

He wants the story to feel relevant as he strips the unnecessary things that might distract or take the audience out of their experiences.

“So often in a Chekhov play, you go in and you see heavy rugs, samovars and all the things that make us feel like it’s a world different than the one we live in,” Michetti says. “We’re going to be stripping it down to its bare essentials. This is largely a family sitting around having these conversations.”

Since the piece was added to the Pasadena Playhouse season, Russia invaded Ukraine. Michetti said they’ve had creative conversations between his team and Feldman about how to handle information about Russia’s history and political makeup.

The play was written in a very different Russia. First produced in 1898, “Uncle Vanya” was a reworking of another play that Chekhov wrote a decade earlier called “The Wood Demon.” In the revision, he reduced the cast from two dozen to nine and gave it a more ambiguous, less happy ending. Some scholars think he revised the work while visiting a prison colony on an eastern Russian island in 1891.

It was all before the Soviet Union was formed or the current Russian Federation. Yet the Pasadena Playhouse artistic team recognizes that a lot of people are distancing themselves from anything Russian as a means of expressing solidarity with Ukrainians.

“It is an interesting time to be doing the work of a very famous Russian playwright,” Michetti says. “But I think all of the choices we are making around this production are likely to de-emphasize the importance of it being a Russian play rather than that of a universal family.”

“Uncle Vanya”

WHEN: Various times Wednesday, June 1, to Sunday, June 26 

WHERE: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molina Avenue, Pasadena

COST: Tickets start at $30


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