Target Margin Theater’s shows are often the best designed in the city. David Herskovits, the company’s founder and daimon-director, has marvelous visual taste—he presides over arch, crisp productions, which always do much with little. Herskovits’s interest clearly lies in interweaving quality with kitsch, and visually and aurally, nothing could be more welcome. But when he makes the same juxtapositions on the performance level—and he does so again in this occasionally nerveless Uncle Vanya—the work sags and fades. Careful effort and intellectual engagement (a program note leaves little doubt on this score) can’t substitute for an actor’s charisma or the showman’s spark.
This is a Vanya for those who know Vanya. The ensemble members have boiled and reconstituted the text, so that they deliver words deliberately made to sound like literal Russian translations or hasty paraphrasing: Lovelorn Vanya (Greig Sargeant) and his wallflower niece, Sonya (a nicely judged Susan Hyon), speak as though marking through a scene. Laura Jellinek’s superb slice-of-a-set design and Annie Simon’s sly, fur-trimmed costumes point back to this cool, metatheatrical tone, and it seems appropriate that actors mime props, stop to think of the next gesture or ask the technician to punch in a cue.
Dematrixing performance in this way, though, requires more of performers rather than less. Herskovits seems perversely capricious in his casting, and few can do better with this life-as-rehearsal style than seem absentminded or robotic. The show, therefore, belongs completely to Edward O’Blenis, whose Astrov is self-deprecating, unrepentant and beautifully three-dimensional—a person among puppets, a cat among mice.—Helen Shaw