During the scene in which visiting landowner Serebryakov tells daughter Sonya and brother-in-law Vanya that he is planning to sell the family estate, Vanya explodes in rage and shoots—Tybalt? Or is it Friar Laurence? And does this while Sonya, dressed in bridal white, spouts lines purloined from—Juliet of Verona?
At this moment you can almost glimpse the concept behind Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, at the handsome new A.R.T. Mezzanine Theatre on West 53rd Street. The folks at Bedlam—that endlessly inventive and usually keen group, which under the artistic direction of Eric Tucker recently gave us the deliciously mirthful Sense and Sensibility—have schemed to take the gist of the two plays in question and stack them atop and within each other. The above-described moment, alas, doesn’t arrive until Act Two. Until then, we get mostly Vanya through a modern-day lens, with occasional stretches of Shakespeare that don’t seem relevant to the rest of the enterprise at all.
Bedlam makes two severe miscalculations here, either one of which in effect foredoom the current enterprise. Melding Uncle Vanya and Romeo and Juliet together requires taking the essence of the two pieces and superimposing them upon each other like interlocking puzzles. The Vanya component, more or less, works within this structure. But Romeo is almost absent in the process; viewers unfamiliar with the Shakespeare—and yes, there are viewers who don’t know the play intimately—might well wonder what all that is about, and why is the Elena wearing a wedding gown? Which leaves us with a diptych with one part suitably realized, the other a hazily-chalked outline.
The bigger problem is one that couldn’t be reasonably foreseen. Bedlam’s method has been to take classic plays and strip them to their essence, thus making them suddenly and almost magically relevant. But with Vanya, they’ve been beaten to the punch: The engrossing Richard Nelson/Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation opened uptown last week under the auspices of the Hunter Theater Project, and there is no contest. (Take this as a strong recommendation to head up to Hunter College through October 14, where—in the spirit of making theater in reach of general audiences—they have maintained a $37 top.)
The Vanya adaptation here is by Kimberly Pau. (“Kimberly Pau Boston” is listed as the Bedlam managing director.) It is hard to judge her adaptation, truncated and interrupted as it is. A good deal of the problem seems to be that Romeo and Juliet has not been adapted for present use; they seem to have simply picked sections and copy-pasted them into the production script.
Mr. Tucker once again serves as producer/director/actor, here essaying Dr. Astrov and at times seeming to direct the company from his corner of the open-area stage. (Were it not for his dedication to Bedlam, the endlessly inventive Tucker would likely be in high demand as an actor.) He is joined by Bedlam regular and co-founder Edmund Lewis as Vanya, Romeo, et al., company member Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and the Nurse, Randolph Curtis Rand as Serebryakov (and others) and Zuzanna Szadkowski as Elena and Juliet. As is typical with Bedlam troupes, all contribute to the fun. John Coyne also adds to the effort as a strolling guitarist.
Having admired Bedlam since stumbling upon their four-person Saint Joan on Bleecker Street in 2014, I find this report discomforting to write: Their method is to be courageously experimental, but some ideas inevitably do not quite work out. There is no doubt, though, that Bedlam and Mr. Tucker will quickly rebound. They are an invaluable addition to our present-day theater scene, and surely will remain so.
Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet opened September 25, 2018, at the A.R.T. Mezzanine Theatre and runs through October 28. Tickets and information: bedlam.org