The Wilma Theater stage lights rose on Friday, bringing relieved, affectionate applause. It was opening night for Minor Character, a comic “remix” of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, created by New Saloon and running through Oct. 24.
Was the applause for Chekhov? Wilma? The all-Philly-star cast? Yes, and more: It was applause for the return of theater itself. As James Ijames, Wilma’s lead artistic director, reminded us, it has been almost 20 months since live theater hit the boards. And a masked, distanced audience was as hungry for it as the players were.
Minor Character is worth the wait. It’s a comic gem, an exploration of theater, play, reading, language — and storytelling and how it gets to us.
Action: a Chekhovian man (homburg, coat, little mustache) wheels toward us a miniature country estate, our setting. He is waved off by a gang of alternative Chekhovs with prompt books in hand.
And we’re thrown into the main conceit of Minor Character: Uncle Vanya done in seven “translations” at once. Among the credited translators is, hilariously, Google Translate.
Characters talk over one another, pit lines against lines, or do them in a row: “There’s a storm rising” … “A storm is brewing” … “There’s going to be a storm.” Brilliant effects abound: wacky confusion, to be sure; comedy; clarity; repetitive, ironic melancholy (“It’s so wrong for you” … “It’s out of character for you” … “It doesn’t suit you”).
Roles disperse among the cast. Not for a moment are we allowed to forget that this is theater, circus, stand-up, spiritual vaudeville.
While the Professor (Keith Conallen) whines about isolation and death, three actors playing his wife, Yelena Andreevna, dance crazily in windows. When Yelena and Doctor Mikhail face their mutual attraction (or don’t), each role is played by four players apiece, but the balance swings to a terrifying seven (for the Doctor) to one (Yelena), evoking desire, pressure, even inertia.
Of course, we get the gun scene, but with the fabulous Lindsay Smiling as Vanya, it rises to an insane, screaming peak, then smacks us with anticlimax, dementia, a trail-off.
Suli Holum plays Vanya well, and she sings a great bass in Roches-like trios with Campbell O’Hare and Sarah Gliko. O’Hare is tremendous as plain, pining Sofya. And is there anything Gliko cannot do? Answer: no. She attracts and repulses as Yelena, plays accordion, sings, dances … whew. Ross Beschler plays a remarkably louche, detached Doctor and plunks a mean bass. Justin Jain is a standout, especially in female roles, and an emotional moment near the end.
In the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton, Minor Character brings home suffering and sadness while tumbling, rolling, and riding bicycles (Beschler-as-the-Doctor upends one and “operates” on it as the wheel spins). Each person here is a minor character … incidental character … backup player … in his or her own life. Welcome back, theater!