Anton’s Uncles is what its director Tina Kronis calls a “movement score.” Distilling and adding new material to Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — a century-old play about the members of a country estate frustrated by their guests, a stuffy professor and his enthrallingly beautiful wife — Anton’s Uncles amplifies that play’s themes of hope and unsatisfied desires. Co-writers Kronis and Richard Alger strip Chekhov’s play of realism, retaining a skeletal plot and then, like decoupage, decorate it with a boisterous concoction of poetry, dance, music, and spectacle. As subtext and metaphor eclipse verisimilitude, Uncles skirts unintelligibility. But to an audience like that of the bi-annual FURY Factory Festival in San Francisco last week – an audience familiar with post-modern lexicons — Anton’s Uncles yields rich layers of exquisite wit, tragedy, and art.
Besides directing and co-writing, Kronis beautifully choreographs her ensemble, the Los Angeles theater company Theatre Movement Bazaar, refusing to indulge banality; serving tea becomes a whirl of limbs and dynamic poses redolent of modern dance posters or martial arts displays. Kronis keeps the play’s pastiche of disciplines fast paced, never letting it take itself too seriously. Even the dire moments are infused with humor; when disgruntled Vanya tries to shoot the professor, his gun fires a “bang” flag. Aptly performed by Ernesto M. Cayabyab, Kevin Chambers, Derrick Oshana, Jacxon L. Ryan, and Mark Skeens, the ensemble not only dances well and sings beautifully, but also accomplishes the remarkable feat of filling the play’s post-modern abstractions with charm and a relatable emotional core.
Chris Kuhl and Jack Mitchell’s nimble lighting designs at the Jewish Theater, where Anton’s Uncles was performed from June 23 to June 25, anchor and distinguish the play’s many pseudo-realities. International set designer Eddie Bledsoe offers a few utilitarian set pieces that match the play’s verve: two tables, three chairs, a carpet, and a wide shelf packed with vodka. Kronis and Alger designed the sound, a mix of traditional and modern folk with a dash of techno, which navigates the play with the same nuance and presence as a character.
Aside from its audio-visual dynamism, the play’s lasting impressions are wrought by its text, which is saturated with a blend of comedy and brooding. “The world is full of fools,” a character declares, “If you don’t believe me, look in the mirror.” Though at times it feels Chekhovian with its heavy pronouncements on life, the play also winks at the audience with modern references, such as when Vanya declares he wasted his life and could have been the next Oprah or Justin Timberlake. This sort of textual remix is difficult to pull off, but Anton’s Uncles succeeds at it.