When Ellen Honig was asked to direct Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for Performing Arts of Woodstock (PAW), her first step was to read several translations and pick the one most accessible to Americans. “Chekhov wrote for the masses,” she said. “He wrote wonderful plays that people really enjoyed going to. I wanted to find that spirit in an American version, so American audiences could enjoy it the same way.”
Local theatergoers will get their chance from May 11 to May 27, Fridays through Sundays, as PAW performs Chekhov’s classic at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center in Woodstock. Avoiding the stuffiness of many English versions, Paul Schmidt’s translation, said Honig, emphasizes the universal nature of “families, love, unrequited love, midlife crisis, repressed feelings, dreams, and disappointments. And it’s funny and lively. Chekhov deserves to continue on.”
Schmidt, a playwright and a scholar, also studied mime with Marcel Marceau. He translated Euripides, Brecht, Genet, Gogol, Mayakovsky, and others, and he taught at the Yale School of Drama.
Uncle Vanya received its Moscow première in 1899 in a production by the Moscow Art Theatre, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski. According to an article by dramaturg Ryan McKittrick, Stanislavski also wanted to play the title role, but co-director Vladimir Nemirovich, who had co-founded the theater with him, didn’t see his colleague as the avuncular type. The tall, handsome Stanislavski ended up earning high praise in the role of Dr. Astrov.
Chekhov’s collaboration with the Moscow Art Theater has been credited with contributing to development of Stanislavski’s renowned “Method” acting. Many contemporary writers cite the influence of Chekhov’s innovations, including brevity, impressionism, and disregard for traditional plot.
In the PAW production, David Smilow plays Professor Serebryakov, who throws his household upside down by announcing that he intends to sell his country estate, which has been maintained for years by his daughter, Sonya (Ella Cattabiani), and Uncle Vanya (Andrew Joffe). Meanwhile, Vanya and Dr. Astrov (Jon Lee) are both under the spell of the professor’s young second wife, Yelena (Ali Doggette), while Sonya pines for Astrov. Darlene Suto, Gary Falk, and David Kent round out the cast, with Honig in the role of Marina.
Last year, Honig directed John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar for PAW. She has been directing for about 35 years, mostly at the Rhinebeck Theater Society. Last summer she toured their production of Copenhagen, which played at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, a theater in Catskill, and the Bearsville Theater.
“Uncle Vanya could be about your family sitting around the table,” said Honig. “Chekhov has a great affection for his characters. He sees all their flaws and their pain but also the humor in their behavior. I believe the audience will be able to relate to them.”
Performing Arts of Woodstock presents Uncle Vanya from May 11 to 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 p.m., with a preview on Thursday, May 10, at 8 p.m. Performances are at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock. Tickets are $23 general admission and $20 for students and seniors. Group rates are also available. For reservations and information, call 845-679-7900 or visit www.performingartsofwoodstock.org.