CHELSEA, Mass. Forget Vanya on 42nd street. Check out Vanya on Winnisimmet Street. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until last week when I finally got around to seeing the Apollinaire Theatre Company in action.
Chelsea might not be the first place you think of when it comes to great theater, but think again. The company’s restaging of “Uncle Vanya” (through Nov. 11) from last year takes audience members from one room to another in Chelsea Theatre Works, a building that used to be a multistory Odd Fellows Lodge in the middle of Chelsea Square. (The Odd Fellows are a story in themselves.)
Apollinaire – née TheatreZone in Boston’s Combat Zone – makes magnificent use of the building, leading us through a facsimile of Vanya’s family estate, from the well-appointed sitting room of Act I to the cramped accounting quarters of Act IV. Vanya is the keeper of the flame, trying to maintain the traditions of the family, albeit out of a certain inertia, against the coarsening sturm und materialist drung of the early 20th century.
The latter is symbolized by his fatuous brother-in-law, a professor who after the death of Vanya’s sister brings a trophy wife into the family. Vanya isn’t so much resentful as jealous. Both he and the local doctor try to pry her away from the professor. The doctor, meanwhile, is adored by Vanya’s lonely niece, whose final speech about happiness in heaven being the reward for misery on earth is one of the great moments in theater (and Erin Eva Butcher as Sonya nails it).
The mix of the personal and political make Chekhov, like Shakespeare, ripe for different interpretation. David Mamet’s version, used by Andre Gregory in “Vanya on 42nd Street” leaned toward loneliness and wistfulness; János Szász’s adaptation of Paul Schmidt’s translation at the American Repertory Theater in a memorable 2002 production stressed bleak existentialism.
Both worked well as does Danielle Fauteux Jacques’ soulful, more everyman-ish and everyera-ish direction of Craig Lucas’s script. The multi-room layout of the play is no gimmick. It’s reminiscent of a spectacular Out of Joint production of “Macbeth” for the Mass. International Festival of the Arts in Holyoke that made similar use of the War Memorial Auditorium where audience members could even join Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth at the dinner table. (“Sleep No More” was a different kettle of theater.)
“Vanya” isn’t quite as intimate, or as dramatic, but it’s a great way to see the play, particularly when you add the warmth of Nathan K. Lee’s beautifully furnished sets and an excellent ensemble of actors. (Seating is limited to 30 people.) Everyone involved gives the production a lived-in quality that makes the comedy that much funnier and the tragedy that much more palpable. You kind of wish they would invite you over to the table for tea.
But have no fear. They do invite you up to the lobby for drinks and conversation in the Gallery lobby after the production. I’m not a fan of critics mingling with the people they’re reviewing so I passed, but you shouldn’t. Speaking of food, though, there is a wealth of ethnic restaurants in the area. We had an excellent BYOB meal at Fusion Foods around the corner from the theater.
This is all by way of saying that Chelsea may have something of a forbidding aura, but put away the stereotype. Apollinaire and nearby restaurants make Chelsea Square a welcoming visit for theatergoers and foodies alike.