Anton Chekov is known for plays filled with bleakness and suffering, and even Uncle Vanya, now playing at Threshold Repertory Theatre, stands out as particularly dark. The title character laments over a life he sees as wasted; he’s unfortunate enough to know he never fulfilled his potential. He even fails in a suicide attempt towards the end of the play. Uncle Vanya is a meditation on the brutality of the class system, dashed dreams, and the sorrow of everyday life, with the only sign of relief being in the afterlife, which is a common theme in Chekhov’s plays.
Don’t try to tell that to Jay Danner, the artistic director of Threshold Rep, though. He sees Uncle Vanya a lot differently. “It’s a comedy, and people forget that,” he says. “There are definitely some serious, truthful moments, all the characters are motivated by human suffering, but it really is a comedy.”
And in fact, he might not be wrong. Chekhov himself insisted that Uncle Vanya was comedic, and there are several moments of slapstick-like physical comedy sprinkled throughout the play. Danner, who is directing Threshold’s production of the play, thinks there’s a general misperception that plagues Chekhov’s work in general.
“The preconceived notion is that Chekhov is stuffy and boring,” Danner says. “Those are the things people may think him to be.”
In order to change that perception, Danner chose an adaptation of Uncle Vanya by Annie Baker that moves the late-1800’s setting of the play to modern times, and he’s using staging that puts the audience directly into the action.
“I decided to do what’s called alley staging,” he says. “The action takes place on a runway with the audience on either side of the actors. There are no walls, there’s no traditional stage.”
Given the amount of focus that Chekhov puts on his dialogue, there’s a great deal of pressure on his actors to provide a spark, but Donner says that rather than focus on that burden, he spoke with his cast about remembering the connection between the family members in Uncle Vanya.
“We talk about what’s going on between the characters,” he says. “Those things are hard to play, so we don’t talk about the action that happens offstage.”
Danner says that he’s been taken with Chekhov’s work since first reading him in college, and even before he was the artistic director of Threshold, he envisioned bringing Uncle Vanya to the stage.
“We staged a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters about three years ago when I was an actor,” he says. “And as soon as I became artistic director, it was at the top of my list to get another Chekhov show on the schedule. I was introduced to him as a student, and I fell in love with the message and the characters and the very modern sensibility of his characters. I’ve always felt a kinship to him.”
While he acknowledges that the four-act play might be challenging for modern audiences, the emotions on display onstage are relevant to the modern human experience.
“The main thing is that for Vanya, he feels he’s wasted his life,” he says. “It’s passed him by; there’s nothing left for him. And I think that can resonate with a lot of people. You regret the things that you didn’t do, and that’s a big part of Vanya’s character. But the idea is that even though we’re all sinners and we’re here to suffer through existence, when you end your natural life all of the regrets sadness and pain will be gone; the suffering will be worth it.”