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What Goodman’s director Robert Falls and Anton Chekhov have in common?

Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls marks his 30th anniversary season with the Chicago premiere of Uncle Vanya. Chekhov’s timeless study of the agonizing intersections of youth and mid-life finds contemporary immediacy in Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker’s fresh and compelling new adaptation. A secluded country estate becomes the setting for unrequited love, renewed rivalries and ruminations both absurd and tragic on roads barely taken and passions left unfulfilled. Falls returns to Chekhov following his critically-acclaimed productions of The Seagull (2010) and Three Sisters (1994).

Prior to the opening night of Uncle Vanya at Goodman Theatre, Russian Chicago got a chance to speak with Robert Falls. Goodman’s artistic director spoke about his understanding of Chekhov’s Russian soul, and why Robert himself is so intrigued with putting Chekhov on stage once again.

VB (Vika Bulakhava): In your opinion, why are so many American-based directors and you in particular fascinated by Anton Chekhov’s works and eager to put them on stage?

RF (Robert Falls): Chekhov was really the creator of modern drama; to an enormous extent, everything that we are as modern theater artists comes from Chekhov and his very complex collaboration with Stanislavsky. He broke tradition with everything that had come before him: the melodrama, for example, or classical poetic dramas, or the highly symbolist works of [playwright] Maurice Maeterlinck and others. Imagine what the audiences of his day felt when the curtain rose on The Seagull: instead of highly wrought declamation in front of opulently rendered sets, Chekhov’s characters were dressed in the same clothes as the audience, performing everyday actions like smoking or drinking or eating in rooms that looked like contemporary rooms, speaking simple dialogue with no poetry or verbal embellishment. It was a revolutionary approach to the making of theater – telling a story about recognizably contemporary characters in which an enormous amount happens without anything really happening. And nowhere is that approach more evident than in Uncle Vanya.

VB: It was Chekhov’s Seagull that you put on stage before, why Uncle Vanya now?

RF: Well, I consider my work on The Seagull to be one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in my three decades at the Goodman. It climaxed an intensive period of study for me of the directing techniques developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian director who collaborated with Chekhov on his major works. I spent months and months reading contemporary analyses of Stanislavsky’s work, and traveled to Russia to study at the Moscow Art Theatre with directors who really knew the revolutionary methods that Stanislavsky developed. These are not the rather watered-down versions that we’ve inherited from American acting teachers, but the highly experimental approaches that he explored in his work with Chekhov, who was himself an extremely experimental writer for his time. In the same way, The Seagull was an experimental process for me, and helped me develop new techniques of my own which I’ve applied in the work that I’ve done since.

VB: Why do you think Uncle Vanya is so relevant nowadays?

RF: Uncle Vanya is essentially about life – whether you’re 27, 47, 60 or 80. Time is going by, and you naturally start to examine your life and how you’re living it, or have lived it. You may be like Serebreyakov, the retired professor in Vanya who’s constantly complaining about his various aches and pains (which I certainly identify with) – but yet you go on. You don’t give up – none of the characters in the play ever gives up. Chekhov understood that; he doesn’t judge his characters, ever. They’re simply trying to live their lives the best they can, often facing enormous obstacles: sometimes loving the wrong person, or being loved by the wrong person, or making choices that may seem odd or hilarious to the outside eye – but not to them.

Where: Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL

When: through March 19

Tickets: $10-$59 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org

Photo credit Liz Lauren