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Cate Blanchett made me a believer in 'Uncle Vanya'

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I've always loved Cate Blanchett as a movie actress, but when I saw her as Blanche Du Bois in the Sydney Theatre Company's "A Streetcar Named Desire," I thought she was overblown and even campy. For me it was the kind of grand-dame performance that often throws a production completely off-balance, and is just as often over-praised.

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But she made me believe that she's a stage dazzler last weekend, when I saw the Sydney Company's production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" at the Kennedy Center.

In the early 1990s, the great American stage director Andre Gregory directed a classic "workshop" production of "Uncle Vanya" (film director Louis Malle turned it into "Vanya on 42nd Street"). At the time, Gregory told me that he viewed Yelena, the character Blanchett plays in "Vanya," as a "pre-Marilyn Monroe figure" -- a woman who can't help attracting notice wherever she goes, but is devastating in the secluded environment of a rural Russian estate. When she and her husband, a retired, gouty professor, invade the farm run for them by his brother-in-law, Vanya, and Sonia, his daughter from his first marriage, Yelena provides a reluctant demonstration of the romantic anarchy of beauty.

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In the coruscating "Uncle Vanya" that runs at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through August 27, Blanchett makes all of Yelena's yearnings and frustrations palpable. We see how Yelena's humor and empathy create a bond between her and the angry, whimsical and melancholy Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), who longs for her, desperately. We understand her resolution to avoid entrancing the brilliant, unconventional family friend, Astrov (Hugo Weaving), a doctor who is prescient about ecology -- and we sense the moment when that resolution melts and she succumbs to his offbeat charm. Because Yelena stays faithful to her husband, she is frequently portrayed either as a tease or a victim. As Blanchett plays her, she's neither. She's a woman at odds with herself -- partly because she's a woman who longs to be better than herself. Blanchett roots the performance in the text but also imbues it with a timeless, epic quality beyond words (as she suggests in the interview clip with Roxburgh, above). Under the guidance of director Tamas Ascher, Blanchett brings this production's Yelena a startling physicality, whether she's affectionately dragging Sonia across half the stage on a rug or doing the athletic version of a Freudian slip -- a sexual pratfall.

More than any other actor, Blanchett sets this production's tone of slapstick tragedy.

Yet this Sydney company is so inspired that Blanchett gives only the third most prodigious performance. Roxburgh is spellbinding as Vanya: funny and poignant not just in turn, but often at the same time. Weaving acts with a bedraggled everyday heroism that is stirring, and he's full of surprises -- when he breaks into a Russian dance, he's extraordinarily light on his feet.

There is great acting everywhere you look on the stage -- including a low-key tour de force from Jacki Weaver as the old nanny/maid, Marina, who exudes a prodigious inertia.

This production is both lived-in and bouncy, even when the characters are paralyzed with indecision and ennui. They take explicit positions about everything from the bankruptcy of the intelligentsia to religion. But Asher and his cast do breathtaking somersaults on the charged emotional webbing that binds them together -- and alternately tortures and comforts them.

If you can't get to the Kennedy Center by August 27, do rent Louis Malle's film, "Vanya on 42nd Street." For two weeks in May of 1994, Malle and an inspired cameraman (Declan Quinn) shot Andre Gregory's workshop production in spaces carved out of the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd St. The film director's loving portraiture and graceful segues actually heighten the freedom of stage director Gregory's work.

In "Vanya on 42nd Street," both lead women are shockingly complex, lucid, even towering - and, amazingly, they have men to match them. Julianne Moore commands star attention with her own interpretation of Yelena: she embodies a sensual awareness and integrity that still can't bring her to salvation. But Brooke Smith is equally smashing as the pained, honest Sonia, giving her a plangent emotionalism and a sort of hard-won radiance. Wallace Shawn's Vanya boasts a marvelous, twisted indomitability beneath his clowning and kvetching; Larry Pine, sounding like William Holden and acting like him in his great mature phase, conveys both Astrov's virility and his soul-killing weariness.

In "May Fools" Malle made a delightful light-comic variation on "Uncle Vanya." Taking off from Gregory's workshop of the real thing, he achieved a classic rendering of family convolutions played out in an expiring countryside.

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