George Saulnier and Virginia Blanco appear in Cutting Ball Theater’s cleverly staged “Uncle Vanya.” (Courtesy Ben Krantz/ Cutting Ball Theater)

An unhappy family comes to life in Cutting Ball’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

The plays of late-19th-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov are so rich with compassion for the inherent comedy and tragedy of the human condition that almost any production offers rewards.

Cutting Ball Theater’s current version, in Paul Schmidt’s easy-flowing translation, is rewarding in many ways.

Directed by the company’s co-founder and erstwhile artistic director Paige Rogers, and performed by a somewhat uneven but largely strong cast, it’s particularly imaginatively staged.

For example, when the audience enters the small space, a disheveled Uncle Vanya, in his underwear, is already dozing in a chair center stage. As the lights dim, the beautiful, indolent house guest, Yelena — the object of Vanya’s lustful fantasies — enters to perform an enticing Spanish-inflected dance for him, as though in his dreams.

Then the play begins.

Rogers’ playing area is bordered on two opposite sides by the audience; the actors perform within those constraints, often speaking directly to the audience — confessing, explaining, appealing, justifying.

High, scaffolding-like shelves on the other two walls, mostly empty but for drinking glasses, further box the actors into their metaphorical prison. They clamber nimbly all over those shelves in this gratifyingly physical production, as well as fling themselves on the floor in despair or creep under (or leap on top of) a table or chair.

Occasionally, to talk to one another intimately — or to emphasize some deeply felt belief — they grab a hanging microphone and speak sotto voce.

The family is trapped here on their country estate, unable, for various reasons, to break free.

They include: buffoonish drunkard Vanya (a comical and convincingly rageful George Saulnier) and his good-hearted, industrious niece Sonya (Haley Bertelsen, touching and even feisty), the estate’s caretakers; Sonya’s ailing father (Douglas Nolan), the estate’s owner, on a visit with Yelena, his second wife (a strong turn by Virginia Blanco); Vanya’s mother (Miyoko Sakatani) and a faithful servant, Nanny (an excellent Nancy Sans).

Vanya and Sonya are consumed with existential angst and unrequited love.

Yelena, too, is oppressed, helpless in face of the emptiness of her own life.

The equally dispirited visiting doctor, Astrov (Adam Magill, fine as a sort of bad-boy charmer), a devout environmentalist, says he is unable to love.

This is a “Vanya” that mixes, to just the right degree, modern effects with a hint of another time and place, bringing to life an unhappy family that is, contrary to Tolstoy’s axiom, unhappy in the deep way of all unhappy families.

REVIEW
Uncle Vanya
Where: Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 21
Tickets: $15 to $45
Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.com

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