By Chekhov, Anton
2000., 2001., 2008., Toronto Soulpepper
Soulpepper troupe spices up Toronto
TORONTO — Great cities are known for the theater companies they keep. Chicago has a wealth of hallmark troupes, presenting everything from the hallowed classics to new works by emerging artists; the reputations of these companies are furthered by tours and transfers to other cities. In Toronto, a city with many similarities to Chicago, the group to watch — one that in its short four seasons has attracted critical attention and audience enthusiasm — is Soulpepper Theatre Company.
Soulpepper, fancifully named at its founding by the young daughter of the company’s artistic director, consists of several 30- to 40-something members who have had basic experience in such Canadian classic theater institutions as the Stratford and Shaw festivals.
Twelve actors in 1998 formed their own company with the mission of “presenting the greatest plays of the past with the finest artists of the present while investing in the artists of the future.” Since then, Soulpepper has initiated an extensive outreach program for young audiences and artists and has annually presented a summer season of classics in two mid-size theaters that have been set up in Toronto’s popular Harbourfront Center.
The company receives a small government subsidy, which accounts for about 10 percent of its revenue, but the bulk of the income for this not-for-profit venture comes from private-sector fundraising and ticket sales. Current sponsors, for example, include the Scotiabank Group and the Toronto Globe and Mail. The Clarica investment group also sponsors an innovative “Bring a Parent to the Theatre” program in which customers under 19 who call the box office and buy one student-priced ticket ($25 in Canadian dollars) receive an adult ticket ($43.50) free.
The 2001 season of Soulpepper contains productions of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” a Eugene Ionesco double bill of “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson” and Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” translated by Canadian playwright John Murrell. A production of “A Christmas Carol” is set for the Christmas season.
“Vanya,” on stage through Aug. 25 in the du Maurier Theatre Centre, has been staged by Laszlo Marton, the venturesome Budapest-based director familiar to Chicago audiences through his work at Court Theatre (“The School for Wives,” “The Play’s the Thing,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”).
In both the 1999 and 2000 seasons, Marton and Soulpepper had a surprising hit in their adaptation of the very early Chekhov drama “Platonov.” It did well at the box office and recently won the Dora award (Toronto’s version of the Tonys) as best production of the year. This year, their revelatory “Vanya,” which uses the same production designer, Michael Levine, and many of the same cast members of “Platonov,” stands as a logical extension of their earlier work.
Two company stalwarts, Diego Matamoros and artistic director Albert Schultz, portray the play’s two principal male characters, Vanya and Dr. Astrov, respectively, and their portrayals are remarkable for the passion with which they invest the roles. It’s clear here that both men, in their mid-40s, are once-exceptional individuals who have gone to seed. They drink too much, they stumble in their lassitude, they lurch about in their fumbling attempts at lovemaking.
Yet they are unquestionably men who could have been — and wanted to be — better. Vanya, reduced to clerical work for the stepfather he despises, is an intelligent, observant man with a biting wit, and Astrov, for all his feelings of guilt and regret for the past, still yearns for a better world in a future time. And both men are still driven by sexual desires; both are desperately in love with the voluptuous wife (Kristen Thomson) of the petty professor (Robert Haley) Vanya scorns.
The dead-end futility, depression, boredom and odd humor of these lives has been accented in dozens of details by Marton and Levine. The setting of the play’s moldering country estate is a patchwork of rugs, old furniture and odds and ends. Like the people who inhabit it, this house has seen better days and has now fallen on hard times. From an overhanging exposed wire hangs a bare light bulb, which is sometimes unscrewed and replaced in a table lamp, for economy’s sake.
An ugly truth
It’s oppressively hot in this summer of “Vanya,” a condition that adds to the feeling of restlessness. Thunder rumbles and, in the end, a rainstorm, like a deluge of tears, creases the production’s transparent curtain as it lowers on the scene of Vanya and his niece Sonya (Liisa Repo-Martell) doggedly going through the paperwork of maintaining the country estate.
Sonya, through Marton’s direction and Repo-Martell’s performance, is one of the most interesting characters in the drama. Often played as young and winsome, she is here portrayed as a palpably plain and ugly young woman, dressed in soiled work clothes and forever cleaning up after the other characters’ carelessness and waste. Her love for Astrov is intense, but it’s absolutely clear why he would have no interest in her.
Every detail of the production has been invested with meaning, and every character has been drawn with care.
This is “Vanya” of great emotional resonance and understanding, a passionate salute to the special genius of Chekhov drama, and a tribute to the craftsmanship and artistry of Marton and Soulpepper.
Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2001, Richard Christiansen
With six members of their acclaimed 2001 production reprising their roles, it’s no surprise that Soulpepper’s remount of Uncle Vanya is a brilliantly nuanced affair.
Set in czarist Russia, the play unfolds on a country estate owned by retired Professor Serebraikov (Joseph Ziegler) but managed by his former wife’s neurotic and frustrated brother Vanya (Diego Matamoros). The aging Serebraikov and his new young wife, Elena (Kristen Thomson), pay the estate a rare visit that rouses long-repressed emotions in the permanent residents.
Right off the bat, director László Marton jolts the audience and sets the dark tone with an unexpected clap of thunder and a rainstorm that ingeniously uses real water. The realistic tenor is extended by Michael Levine’s cluttered, highly functional set, which embodies the characters’ decaying opulence. While Uncle Vanya is at its core an unhappy play, Marton is able to tease out a steady stream of great comic moments, Vanya’s drunken sexual advances on an overturned chair being one of the best.
As Vanya, founding Soulpepper member Matamoros is exceptional. Exuding waves of lust, jealousy and bitterness, his Vanya teeters between indolent self-pity and homicidal mania with an unpredictability that feels wholly natural. While the entire cast is adept, Albert Schultz deserves a special mention for his portrayal of the insightful alcoholic Astrov, who, as a well-liked doctor with a penchant for environmentalism, serves as an effective foil to the wasted, petulant Vanya.
It was the best, and now it’s better
Robert Cushman, National Post
Published: Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto
Soulpepper’s Uncle Vanya was a great production when we first saw it in 2001. It keeps getting better. Back for the third time, it now has a quartet of central performances that, fine individually, have reached a phenomenal level of contact. They also inhabit an external world that in Laszlo Marton’s production is more clearly and starkly depicted than ever.
There’s very little glamour in this account of Chekhov’s world. Uncle Vanya himself, for all his pretentions to (and actual possession of ) wit and culture, is drudging his life away as an absentee landlord’s estate manager. In Diego Matamoros’ performance he begins both the first and the last acts curled invisibly in an armchair, like a figure out of Lewis Carroll: a victim of depression in the first case and despair in the second, having failed to shoot either himself or the exploiting Professor on whom he blames his own failure. In between, he has fallen hopelessly in love with the Professor’s beautiful young wife and had to endure the humiliation of seeing the local doctor get closer to first base with her than he could ever manage. Matamoros roles all these disparate defeats into one ball of pain and frustration, without ever losing sight of the fact that the play is, in some sense, a comedy. As Sonya tells him, he will survive. That’s the trouble.
Liisa Repo-Martell’s Sonya is even more moving, and fiercely so. Any traces of waif-like fragility have long since departed this performance. She’s a practical country girl, tormented by feeling unattractive. When she asks the doctor, whom she adores, if he could ever be interested in a “friend or sister” of hers, she curses her choice of words as soon as they’re out of her mouth; though the cruellest irony is that he can’t see through them, transparent as they are. Enlisting the matchmaking assistance of the beauteous Elena, she knows her doom before her friend can tell her of it, and she accepts it silently, but with tragic weight.
Kristen Thomson shows more clearly than ever before how Elena clings to her own comesticized image as a way of keepingemotionalattachments at bay. Marton makes much of these characters’ habits of rushing out — from the room, the house, the district — whenever a situation becomes painful or embarrassing. This applies even to the one supposed realist among them, Astrov, the doctor whom Albert Schultz plays as bone-weary. He has to come a long way — on horseback, through the mud — to make house calls, and Schultz, whose performance has become harder with the years (perhaps excessively so), is on a short fuse. He is violently impatient with the suicidal Vanya, but hardly less so with himself, for his professional foul-ups and for falling in love with Elena. Even his hymns of praise to forest preservation–his one great passion — are subdued and hurried, as if he hardly expected anyone to be interested and has grown a shell to preempt other people’s laughter.
Apart from the occasional explosion (mainly from Matamoros) these people speak very quietly, because they know one another so well and can take their relationships for granted. So of course can the actors, who have played these roles since the production started. Even at the risk of some inaudibility (Michael Levine’s set is less acoustically hospitable here than it was at Harbourfront), this deep sense of ensemble is as precious as it’s rare. No one else in the cast has been able to put down such deep roots, with the possible exception of William Webster, who in the minute role of a bent-double servant functions, as I wrote before, as part of the scenery; he is the image of life going on, regardless. Michael Simpson the production’s other survivor, brings little more to old Waffles than a voice and a wig. Among the newcomers, Joseph Ziegler’s Professor gets the Professor’s tetchiness and pomposity, plus a new and credible smoothness, but doesn’t as yet get very far beneath them. Hazel Desbarats as Vanya’s pedantically besotted Maman is a more blatant eccentric than was the late and wonderful Charmion King; Patricia Hamilton, though not the world’s most obvious peasant-woman, doles out the right measures of Russian tea and sympathy as the family nurse.
The play is an exposition of the law of unintended consequences. At one level it’s farce. The Professor’s plan to sell the estate may well be self-interested but it could be sensible; however, it gets nowhere because Vanya and Sonya, the people most affected, have more tormenting things on their mind. Then Vanya tries his hand as a tragic hero with ludicrous, agonizing results. This climactic scene has lost something in clarity. But other wonderful moments remain: Vanya’s making love to a chair in place of Elena, Elena leaping into Astrov’s arms when it’s too late to matter. The production’s physical dynamics still match its emotional, with the rain pelting down before, after and halfway through the action. This is a hard world, lit by a single electric bulb that’s carefully rationed; there is, what with Astrov’s forestry schemes, a topical emphasis on conservation. This is Chekhov unsentimental but loving. It’s as good as theatre gets. – Uncle Vanya runs to June 21. Visit www.soulpepper.ca for more information.
Soulpepper troupe spices up Toronto. Great cities are known for the theater companies they keep. Chicago has a wealth of hallmark troupes, presenting everything from the hallowed classics to new works by emerging artists; the reputations of these companies are furthered by tours and transfers to other cities. In Toronto, a city with many similarities to Chicago, the group to watch – one that in its short four seasons has attracted critical attention and audience enthusiasm – is Soulpepper Theatre Company. […] In both the 1999 and 2000 seasons, Marton and Soulpepper had a surprising hit in their adaptation of the very early Chekhov drama Platonov. It did well at the box office and recently won the Dora award (Toronto’s version of the Tonys) as best production of the year. This year, their revelatory Vanya, which uses the same production designer, Michael Levine, and many of the same cast members of Platonov, stands as a logical extension of their earlier work. […] Every detail of the production has been invested with meaning, and every character has been drawn with care. This is Vanya of great emotional resonance and understanding, a passionate salute to the special genius of Chekhov drama, and a tribute to the craftsmanship and artistry of Marton and Soulpepper.
12 August, 2001
Director László Marton has created an intimate production capable of the subtle shifts between tragedy and comedy essential to Vanya‘s success. Marton smartly pushes the intimacy to the point of claustrophobia, thus emphasizing one of Vanya‘s central ironies: that even isolation can be stifling. He is greatly aided by designer Michael Levine, who, in a powerfully effective visual, captures the oppressive potential of wide-open spaces by positioning a tiny and cluttered, yet wall-less, set in the middle of the cavernous du Maurier Theatre. […] a powerful production, another compelling exploration of Chekhov’s inspired view of the human condition by a company well equipped for the task.
25 July, 2002
Chekhov plus Soulpepper plus director László Marton equals great theatre. With Platonov in 1999 and 2000, adapters Susan Coyne and Marton had shape a coherent play from the raw material of a rambling unperformable work. With Uncle Vanya in John Murrell’s crisp translation, the company begins with a masterpiece of world theatre and makes it seem brand new. As with Platonov, Marton draws incredibly detailed performances from the entire cast, performances so natural they seem improvised. With the characters and their situations brought so fully to life, this now becomes the best production of this play I have seen […] Unlike previous productions that misguidedly try to add glamour or nostalgia to life in the country in 19th-century Russia, Marton and his design team have emphasized Vanya’s and his niece Sonya’s poverty. Allusions to this abound especially in the explosive third act, but this is the first time I’ve seen a director take them seriously […] The central room of the house is lit by a single bare light bulb that has to be moved from lamp to lamp. When the electricity fails in Act 2, Kevin Lamotte gives us the highly realistic effect of how dark a room would be if lit by only two candles. This physical darkness underscores the metaphor various characters use about their lives: a glimmer of light far off gives one the courage to go on despite pain and suffering […] Marton has focused this production on the mental strategies the characters use for survival. The mud, the storm, the rain only reinforce the tenuousness of man’s life on earth and the need for spiritual as well as physical shelter. This is a bleaker interpretation than usual but one that rings truer and clarifies more aspects of the play than any other I’ve seen. All those involved in the directionless Seagull now playing in Stratford should be bused in for an object lesson in how Chekhov should be performed […] this Uncle Vanya proves yet again that Soulpepper can achieve greatness.
It may have only one 60-watt bulb to its name, but this production shines light into many corners of Uncle Vanya.
The Globe and Mail
2 August 2001
When Soulpepper do Chekov, with László Marton directing, they are the best. This year’s Uncle Vanya may be even better than last’s year’s Platonov, even if it lacks the buccaneering appeal that comes from harnessing an unfamiliar monster of a play with sprawling action and a sprawling cast. Vanya is a far tighter work. It is also, obviously, a greater one – one of the most searching, least sentimental analyses of human failure ever written and also one of the most compassionate accounts of the things that, struggling, we do to ourselves and one another. Its emotional impact here is tremendous. Its physical impact is remarkable, too. One image after another clings to the mind, beginning with the sight of rain streaming down an almost-transparent curtain before the action begins – a forecast of the storm that breaks out a whole act later and that seems second only among dramatic tempests to the one in King Lear. […] This kind of physicality is not what we except in Chekhov, thought it is a direct descendant of what Marton, a Hungarian, gave us in Platonov. I described that play as “sprawling” and my abiding memory of it is of people spreading themselves out on sofas and on floors. They do the same here. Vanya recklessly, Elena with a kind of provocative decorum, everybody else in between […] Michael Levine’s set, without walls but compressing all the material of several lifetimes, is brilliant. […] At the end the rain-soaked scrim descends again, and we are left – as I imagine they are behind it – gasping and proud.
The rain-soaked plastic sheeting that serves as a stage curtain at Toronto’s du Maurier Theatre Centre is rolled up once more and Soulpepper Theatre Company revives its gritty, clowning and deeply moving version of Uncle Vanya […] Amongst the cups of cold tea and the discarded shoes, Soulpepper has found the richness and complexity of life.
The Globe and Mail
20 July, 2002
It’s the different cultural perspective that László brings to Chekhov that has been so successful and so popular with the audiences. It’s a fresh look at plays we thought we knew. (Albert Schultz on László Marton)
The Toronto Star
14 July, 2002
None so moving as this. To caricature, but not by much: most productions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya concern a group of perfectly sweet, civilizes people whose lives are wrecked by a selfish and pompous loudmouth, generally referred to as the Professor, who just happens to hold their fates his hands. In László Marton’s triumphant Soulpepper production, both sides have been reappraised […] Marton, a Hungarian, gets us away from the genteel English-speaking Chekhovian tradition – and also, to be fair, from the genteel Russian-speaking Chekhovian tradition; […] The physicality of this production may or may not be especially Slavic but it is certainly exhilarating. Think of Matamoros’ love affair with furniture; he hides in it, and virtually makes love to a chair, caressing it as he fantasies about comforting Elena during a storm. Or think of Thomson, at her last moment, leaping into Schultz’s arms, and him lifting her off the ground, when it’s too late to do either of them good or harm.
26 July, 2002