Adapted and Directed by Ryan "Little Eagle" Pierce based on Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Produced by Eagle Project & Double Down Productions
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.7.17
New Perspectives Theatre, 458 West 37th Street
by Ran Xia on 5.4.17
Kahlil Garcia and Jackie Torres in Uncle Abram. Photo by Ashley Marinaccio.
BOTTOM LINE: The Eagle Project's Uncle Abram breathes new life into the Chekhov classic and offers a unique indigenous perspective on its environmentalist theme.
The thing about Chekhovian intellectuals is that they are often afflicted with a case of ennui. The two main bros of Uncle Vanya, Doctor Astrov and Vanya, are no exception. Both overworked, out of place, and rivals in love, they are the epitomes of dissatisfied romantics. Except their existential crises carry more urgency than usual in Eagle Project's new adaptation that transplants the Russian classic into Reconstructive America.
Adapter and director Ryan "Little Eagle" Pierce assemble a cast of African American, Hispanic, and Native American actors in a new version of Chekhov's most environmentally conscious play. A mundane country life is interrupted when retired art Professor Serebryakov, renamed Morrison (Mike Callahan) here, takes his young wife Hannah (in place of Yelena, played by powerhouse performer Kelly Anne), to his rural estate run by his late wife's brother Abram (Tony White). We're introduced to the household, including Abram's mother Mme. Voorhees (a youthful Emilie Bonsant playing a convincing elderly woman), the professor's daughter with his first wife Esther (Jackie Torre), the bankrupt landowner "Waffles" (Abby Ybarra) who lives on the estate, Almira the family nanny (a calming presence by Brenda Crawley), and finally the frequent visitor to the house, local doctor Joseph "Red Elk" Hamilton (Kahlil Garcia).
Both Abram and Hamilton are head over heals about Hannah, whose existence is more like a decorative pottery gnome than a valuable asset; her bitterness and boredom festers and her mere presence apparently disrupts the normalcy of the family: Abram can no longer focus on his tasks; the doctor visits daily, leaving his own estate neglected. However, the entire household orbits around the professor couple without complaint; that is until the old man reveals his plan: sell the estate so that he can buy a cottage in Canada. Good plan, right? Except of course, it never occurred to him that his decision might affect an entire household of people who depend on the estate to survive.
Among the ensemble, Torres stands out as an impressive Esther. She delivers both her unrequited love for the doctor, and her personal struggle as a woman who doesn't meet society's standards of beauty, with incredible nuance. She embodies the "every woman" persona perfectly, yet is charming in her own way of reliability.
One disappointment might be the overly exaggerated costumes: Anne's whole wardrobe seems ill-fitted and Torres' grey sack-like dress feels unnecessarily heavy. But fortunately, the production also features live music. As "Waffles," Ybarra plays "I've Been Working On The Railroad" and "Amazing Grace" on harmonica, as well as traditional indigenous music on a hand drum, both of which become perfectly organic parts of the world of the play. It's incredible how well the quintessential Russian drama translates so well into another culture, made relevant through a universally important, but also uniquely indigenous, issue.
While keeping the plot of Uncle Yanya intact, Uncle Abram taps into the unique aspect of the importance of nature in Native American culture, which makes the piece more than just another Chekhov adaptation. "One needs to be a mindless vandal to burn all that beauty in one’s stove, to destroy that which we cannot recreate" says the doctor, who realizes individuals' power and responsibility in nature. In the wake of the water crises in Standing Rock, politicians' inconsiderate plans that would destroy countless natural resources, and elected officials' blunt denial of climate change, an indigenous doctor's passionate speech about preservation holds power.
(Uncle Abram plays at New Perspectives Theatre, 458 West 37th Street, through May 7, 2017. The running time is two hours with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 3 and 8; and Sundays at 7. Tickets are $20 and are available at uncleabram.bpt.me. For more information visit eagleprojectarts.org.)
Uncle Abram is adapted and directed by Ryan "Little Eagle" Pierce, based on Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov with translation by Marian Fell. Set Design is by Mitch Ost. Dramaturgy is by Matthew Champagne. Costume Design is by Li Murillo. Stage Manager is Alex Haney.
The cast is Kelly Anne, Emilie Bonsant, Mike Callahan, Brenda Crawley, Kahlil Garcia, Omar Gonzalez, Jackie Torres, Tony White, and Abby Ybarra.