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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Minor Character — Wilma Theater

Usually, I am not a fan of deconstructions. Rather than illuminate, as their creators and directors might claim, they tend to chaotically jumble what was once coherent and devolve into self-indulgent twaddle.

      “Minor Character,” as conceived by members of New Saloon, a New York company that specializes in original concoctions, and performed by a flawlessly superb ensemble at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, if a lone example of deconstruction, would warrant throwing all my objections to the practice out an Empire State Building window. It’s that exceptional.

      “Uncle Vanya,” the play New Saloon dissects with perceptive surgical acuity, comes through not only illuminated but radiant with sharp observations, heightened reality, strong thematic content, and a poignant modernity that belies the woke crunks who would like to scuttle “Vanya’s” author, Anton Chekhov, and all classic playwrights in favor of their approved purveyors of favored propaganda.

      New Saloon’s “Minor Character” is both derivative and original. It exemplifies the best of classic genius while putting a fresh face and endowing a refreshing zest to it. New Saloon founders Madeline Wise, Milo Cramer, and Morgan Green show how every characters in “Vanya,” most of whom are not minor, is a distinct individual with a tale of personal angst to tell. Life, as psychologist Jordan Peterson and others tell us, is difficult. Chekhovian characters express that difficulty. New Saloon makes those expressions immediate and universal. The comedy Chekhov placed in his plays, and the pathos of lives lived unhappily blend in the tasty mélange New Saloon serves so assuredly and brilliantly.

      In addition to conveying their understanding of Chekhov, his presentation of Russia on the brink of change, and the characters that populate it, New Saloon has adept fun by imbuing their script with dialogue from six “Vanya” translators, often cleverly having characters spout all six renditions at once. (In a moment of inspired flight, they even have one sequence presented in the original Russian). We not receive the insights of Wise, Cramer, Green, and company, but we see the threads with which Philly favorite (at least of mine) Carol Rocamora, Marian Fell, Paul Schmidt, Laurence Selenick, Cramer, and Google interpret Chekhov’s tone and content. The differences range from subtle to landing on another plane.

       “Minor Character” is a party throughout, a marvelous way to celebrate a return to live theater. In one bold stroke, the Wilma has reminded audiences of what was lost in 18 months of dormancy. Its staging of “Minor Character” energizes, inspires, and rekindles a desire to take a seat in a dark auditorium and make oneself open to all the possibilities that might be offered there.

      As I always say, it’s never the play, it’s the production that matters. The Wilma more than puts New Saloon’s opus on stage. It turns it into an explosion of wit, shrewdness, delight, and all theater can be.

       “Bravo” cannot be bellowed enough to reward the masterful work of director Yury Urnov, one of the new triumvirate guiding the Wilma these days (as is New Saloon’s Green), and the gloriously meshed and thrillingly harmonious company of Wilma regulars — Sarah Gliko, Justin Jain, Ross Beschler, Suli Holum, Jered McLenigan, Lindsay Smiling, Keith Conallen, and Campbell O’Hare — who conspire, individually and in ensemble to create a warm, telling, funny, and discerning occasion of theater.

         The Wilma has put together and exhaustively trained a core group over the past several seasons. The work has paid off with dividends as Gliko and the others show their depth, versatility, resilience, wit, and ability to move (emotionally and physically). Kudos to Blanka Zižka for being so bored with the patterns of stock theater that she did something about it. “Minor Character” is not the first, nor it will be the last harvest of Zižka’s vision, but it is a shining tribute to it.

        The Wilma company does so much so well, it’s hard to know where to begin to extol its glories.

        Let’s, as Oscar Hammerstein bids us, start at the very beginning.

        As the actors come on stage, Holum, Gliko, and O’Hare congregate mid-stage right and present an a cappella song that is so rich in harmony, anchored by Holum’s rich basso profundo (or baritone profundo, which would be more accurate), it captivates beyond the words it conveys. The entire show could have been sung by this trio, and not one complaint would be legitimately uttered.

         Next, you see the weaving of the various translations. As Beschler, portraying Astrov, the beleaguered, world-weary, thoughtful doctor who equally tends to neighborhood flora and fauna, relates the far from minor character’s observations of the world and wonder at how people 100 years hence will judge those of his time, Justin Jain stands behind him with a script, an on-stage prompter of sorts, and reminds of his next lines.

       In less deft hands, this gambit could backfire and look self-conscious or defeatingly gratuitous, but as performed by Jain and others who take his place as stage whisperer, it fits in with the multiple layers of dialogue New Saloon employs and lives as a neatly integral part of Urnov’s production.

        It also prepares the audience for rare times when the fourth wall will be broken and their presence will be acknowledged. This includes a sequence in which the audience is asked to deliver lines to Jain’s prompting. That was one of the few parts that seemed a tad too much for me. I didn’t participate, but most of the punters with me did and, I can tell, had a good time doing it.

       Beschler is an excellent Astrov. So is Smiling and others who fulfill the role in turn or simultaneously as Urnov has actors share characterization in series or in groups. All is takes is the transfer of a costume piece, a shawl, sweater, or kerchief, and one character morphs into another or shares the role in often stunning uses of theatrical counterpoint. The most amazing occasion of this comes during the scene in which Yelena has invited Astrov to meet with her so she can tell him about her stepdaughter, Sonya’s, longing for him. Even more than in most productions of Chekhov, “Minor Character” turns this into a seduction scene with Yelena becoming increasingly unable to suppress her longing while informing Astrov about Sonya’s, and Astrov taking the bait he had been yearning to have offered him since Yelena arrived in his vicinity a few months before.

        In a sequence of theatrical power and legerdemain, one Astrov becomes five — Watch those signature vests fly. — and three Yelenas become one, the five pleading with a willing but morally responsible, married Yelena to succumb to Astrove and Yelena’s mutual desire and gratify his craving. The scene marvelously elevates Chekhov’s relatively staid offering to an intense, romantic gem, seething with passion showing both the genuine longing and prudent restraint of the would-be lovers, one inhibited by her marriage, the other bound by social mores and his closeness to Vanya and his family.

        Urnov’s production often takes the quietly suppressed angst within Chekhov’s characters and exposes it to expressive, cathartic daylight. Yelena, who maintains a quiet mystery in “Uncle Vanya,” jumps from minor to major character status as New Saloon’s script reminds us that she does speak about her marriage to an elderly professor, Vanya’s brother-in-law, her feelings for Astrov, and her desire to be friends with her husband’s daughter and family.

        Vanya, whether assayed by McLenigan, Smiling, or Holum, reveals all of his anxieties and pent-up complaints in this wonderful rendition that gives him freedom to emote more vividly and more expansively than usual. It is Vanya, even more than in Yelena, Astrov, or the professor, the only character played by a single actor, Keith Conallen, and the only character Conallen plays, that we see the completeness of someone’s being and become concerned even as we laugh at the plight, self-made plight, he endures.

        The scene in which Vanya brandishes a gun and tries to shoot his brother-in-law and then himself, is a splendid mixture of tension and farce.

        New Saloon and Urnov fill this show this music interludes during which characters brandish guitars, clarinets, accordians, and instruments in between. These sequences add to the fun, liveliness, and poignancy of the production. The singing is especially grand. And, again, there’s Holum’s basso to savor.

        The generous, enlightening, bold, and exciting staging of Chekhov by New Saloon, Urnov, and the resourceful Wilma troupe celebrates all involved — Chekhov, creative interpretation, storytelling, humanity, and theater. In addition to the creators, director, and actors, much praise is due Ivania Stack for her flexible, identifiable costumes, J. Dominic Chacon for lighting that added to both mood and clarity, Misha Kachman for his adaptable set, and Michael Kiley for excellent composition and sound design.

        If this production of “Minor Character” was the first game in a sports season, it would challenge all other players in all other games to improve upon its exuberant brilliance and keen understanding of “Uncle Vanya,” stagecraft, and all other theatrical skills.

          As interesting as all else in this magnificent landmark presentation is how prescient Chekhov was/is in discerning problems that might last the 100 years and more since Astrov invokes that number in his speeches. In an almost Brechtian way, Urnov suspends the usual tone and action of his piece to have characters speak directly to the audience about the environment, women’s rights, freedom, and human responsibility. Though some passages on these subjects seem enhanced, and not just by visual aids, they’re all recognizable from Chekhov’s text. To Urnov’s credit, and his cast’s, these passages are presented clearly and matter-of-factly, aiming towards conversational common sense rather than cloying advocacy.

        In one of the most exhilarating and happy evening I’ve spent at the theater — and I’ve spent more than 10,000 evenings in theaters — I have only one complaint, and it’s a severe one.

        In 54 years of theatergoing, I have kept at least one copy of every program I’ve been given. They fill a room of my house, alphabetized in my neurotic fashion. The Wilma, stating as an excuse 21st century technology and, of course, ecology — ugh! —  has not printed programs for “Minor Character.” You can put the program on your phone by clicking on a symbol placed in front of your seat and other places throughout the theater. This is all quite modern, but I suspect some penny-pinching and virtue signaling as much I do economy and alleged good citizenship. Bitterness aside, I miss a program. I like to have something tactile and compact by which to recall a production. I actually use programs practically. They provide information I need to present my own award, silly as that is, but also to participate in more general awards that ask for my vote. Programs serve as reminders of what I want to suggest for honors. Then again, I reminisce with them. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to note I saw Samuel l. Jackson on stage in “The Soldier’s Play” at the Walnut Street Theatre. You see, I go back and enjoy learning whom I saw when. Not providing a program doesn’t give credence to long-term memories or nostalgia. (A 1973 program I have of “Uncle Vanya” allows me to fondly recall seeing Nicol Williamson in the title role, George C. Scott as Astrov, Julie Christie as Yelena, Elizabeth Wilson as Sonya, Barnard Hughes as the Professor, Lillian Gish as Nanny, Cathleen Nesbitt as Mama, and Conrad Bain as Waffles. Is that worth having a keepsake to remember?)

         Whether sentimentally or practically, I enjoy having a program and resent the Wilma’s stance, finding is haughty, obsequious, and chintzy.

         Too bad for me, perhaps, but I also cannot respect the Wilma’s cavalier attitude on this matter. Perhaps someone with more money than I can restrictively endow money for printing programs. I, for one, would be grateful to that benefactor, as I am grateful to Linda and David Glickstein and Mari and Peter Shaw for providing funds that helped to bring “Minor Character” to the Wilma stage and make it the triumph it is.

        “Minor Character” by New Saloon, adapted from Anton Chekhov and six translators including Google, runs through Sunday, October 24, at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $39 and can be obtained by visiting www.wilmatheater.org or calling 215-546-7824. Please remember to bring proof of COVID vaccination and ID to gain entrance.

         “Minor Character” will be streamed following its October 24 close through November 7. Visit www.wilmatheater.org for details.

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