Sunday, February 25, 2024

Review: Uncle Vanya at Theatre Aquarius

Who: Theatre Aquarius
What: Uncle Vanya
Length: 2.5 hours, including intermission
Where: 
Theatre Aquarius Mainspace (190 King William Street)
When: January 10-27, 2024
Tickets: $20 and up
To Buy Tickets: https://tickets.theatreaquarius.org/

Let me tell you a not-so-secret. You don’t need a Beyond James review of Crow Theatre‘s Uncle Vanya, which is being presented by Theatre Aquarius until January 27. The show, which premiered at Crow’s Theatre as one of their 2022-2023 season openers was reviewed and generally critically acclaimed by all who saw it.

For a more fulsome review, check out The Slotkin Letter, Intermission Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Ludwig Van Toronto. . .you get the idea. The production was also nominated for five Dora awards, including Outstanding Production, ultimately winning one award for Outstanding Scenic/Projection Design. Needless to say, it’s a production that was widely felt to be worth seeing with several reviews suggesting you should “run, don’t walk.”

From start to finish, it’s easy to see why this production has been so adored. The adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell is top-notch. Although Chekov called Uncle Vanya a comedy, the playwright was not known for his sense of humour. Despite this, Repo-Martell and Director Chris Abraham have found clever moments to elicit smiles and laughs from audiences. It doesn’t hurt that some of the country’s finest actors are delivering dialogue and memorable moments.

The costumes and sound design enhance an already stellar production. The set, by Waterdown native Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan is exquisite and deserves special focus. I regretted entering the theatre just before the play’s start, as I frequently found myself examining small details throughout the stage and lighting. It was marvelous how much these details contributed meaningfully to the production despite being otherwise ignored by the performers.

The primary difference between Theatre Aquarius’ production and the ones from other reviews is in staging. The original production of Crow Theatre’s Uncle Vanya was staged “in the round” with audience members sitting intimately close to the performers on multiple sides. This required a slightly different set layout and different considerations as to how the actors moved throughout the stage and interacted. However, the adaptation to Theatre Aquarius to accommodate the venue’s proscenium is seamless. While the audience is not physically as close as in the original production, tense moments and emotions still come across clearly. Actors’ movements still feel natural as they glide around the stage.

A few years ago, Toronto’s Mirvish Productions was producing Blythe Spirit featuring Angela Lansbury. Coincidentally, a local Hamilton theatre company was producing Blythe Spirit at the same time. The Hamilton company’s promotional campaign promised that their iteration was just as good as that which featured Angela Lansbury. I never saw either production, but would be inclined to disagree with the sentiment.

By contrast, Theatre Aquarius has much to brag about with this production- but aren’t. They are humbly presenting what was arguably one of last season’s best theatre productions in the country. Following its run at Theatre Aquarius, Uncle Vanya will be headed to Mirvish’s CAA Theatre as of February 2, where tickets will start at $50. As a point of reference, Theatre Aquarius’ tickets for Uncle Vanya start at $20, making theatre much more affordable for Hamiltonians.

For Theatre Aquarius, Uncle Vanya is a tremendous success for another reason. The company is soundly fulfilling its mandate by bringing the best of Canadian theatre to Hamilton audiences. Themes of climate change, the human condition and deceptive appearances are all brought to the forefront throughout the performance. And although Uncle Vanya was written in 1897, these themes feel just as relevant today.

As a plus for Theatre Aquarius, it is often much more economical to present performances than it is to create new ones- in theory, this means not only is Theatre Aquarius fulfilling an important mandate through this presentation, but they are doing so in a fiscally responsible manner that builds the company’s reputation under their new leadership.

This adaptation of Uncle Vanya is a wonderful production that is well worth seeing- particularly before the same production becomes more expensive next month. It’s equally wonderful to see Theatre Aquarius moving in this direction and bringing acclaimed theatrical works to Hamilton. The performance and this initiative are should be celebrated and is worth seeing.

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