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'Uncle Vanya' a welcome Kennedy Center guest with Cate Blanchett, Sydney Theatre Co.

'Uncle Vanya' a welcome Kennedy Center guest with Cate Blanchett, Sydney Theatre Co.

It seemed fitting that the air was so hot and heavy, with dark clouds passing low in the sky, as the audience arrived for a performance of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" at the Kennedy Center Saturday night.

The opening scene in this visually grim, but dramatically vibrant, Sydney Theater Company production exuded the lethargy of a hot, aimless day and came complete with the sound of buzzing flies.

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Later, the rumble of thunder and splashes of rain didn't just enhance the ambiance of Zsolt Khell's strikingly weathered set, but provided some nicely shaded presaging to the human outbursts that would have to occur before life could settle back into listless routine on the fading Serebryakov country estate.

The residents and visitors on that estate are not the cheeriest of sorts -- all of those resentments, unrequited loves; all of that vodka. You would probably hate spending a weekend with this lot in real life.

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But these are fascinating creatures just the same, perhaps more so than usual, thanks to ...

Andrew Upton's adaptation of the play, which has a crisp, contemporary ring without being forced. And thanks also to director Tamas Ascher, who keeps the tension strong even when things are at their most static and who ensures that the flashes of humor register potently -- I'm not sure Chekhov has ever been quite this funny.

Of course, the cast helps, too. The Sydney company offers an impressive demonstration of true ensemble work, as was the case when the troupe paid a memorable visit to the Kennedy Center in 2009 with "A Streetcar Named Desire."

The presence of the stellar Cate Blanchett in the role of Yelena, bored, but dutiful, wife of the much older professor Serebryakov, does not tilt the balance.

Blanchett, so tall and so beautiful, is a formidable presence, to be sure, and she gives a deeply nuanced performance that energizes the stage even when she is motionless. For all of the glamour she brings to the frayed surroundings, she makes it clear that Yelena is just as trapped and unfulfilled as everyone else by the choices they have made.

Blanchett leaves the scenery-chewing to others, especially Richard Roxburgh as the volatile Vanya, who is in the spring-loaded position from the get-go, long before he actually picks up a pistol. There's a lot of pain inside this character, a lot of heart, too; Roxburgh brings all of that out in a portrayal rich in expressive detail, physical and verbal.

Hugo Weaving likewise fully inhabits the role of Astrov, the bored country doctor whose presence at the estate proves unsettling to several people in several ways. Weaving is especially deft at revealing the liberating influence of drink on the otherwise low-keyed doctor. When he kicks up his heels, he sends a seismic jolt through the play. He is no less delectable in the scene with Blanchett when Astrov and Yelena finally have their moment of passion, however abbreviated, however absurd.

Hayley McElhinney does wonderfully sympathetic work as the inescapably "plain" Sonya. When, her hopes of love crushed, she pulls out a little girl's chair and shrinks into it, the effect is extraordinarily touching.

John Bell conveys the myopic, egotistical Serebryakov with great flair. Telling efforts come as well from Sandy Gore (Maria), Jacki Weaver (Marina) and Anthony Phelan (Telegin).

"Uncle Vanya" has been updated to the Soviet era, roughly 1950s, which means an occasional anachronism (would Astrov mention Lent in Soviet days? Would anyone, let along a professor, have a private estate?).

But the time change neatly underlines the sense of slow decay in and around the confining world of the characters. And if Blanchett's Yelena looks like she was outfitted in Hollywood (Gyorgyi Szakacs designed the costumes), that only intensifies the way she stands out from the rest.

Among the many small things that account for much of the production's power is the use of music, especially the Dream Song from Massenet's "Manon," which gets played on a phonograph a couple times. The aria describes a dream of a little cottage in a beautiful forest with a clear stream, a bit of paradise denied because a desired one is not there to share it.

Variations on such a dream haunt more than one character in this tale of wasted lives, thwarted goals and what might have been.

PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI

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