Sound of the Estate
nytheatre.com review by Seth Duerr
August 15, 2004
As writer/director Jehriko Turner points out in the press release, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya explores wasted life, unrequited love, and disjointed family. Unfortunately, despite his aspirations for Sound of the Estate, his modernization of Chekhov’s masterpiece falls short of the original.
Don’t get me wrong…all the landmarks are still present in the piece; you can follow along with Chekhov’s four acts and pretty much glean what scene is what and which character is which. Turner has moved them from a late 19th century Russian estate to a shabby recording studio in present-day Harlem, where the only piece of dacor is a platinum record earned by the “Professor” some years before. He and his girl, Helena (Yelena) come to visit the Boss (Vanya), his production assistant, and his niece Sonya. Hermes (Astrov) is a record "doctor" rather than a traditional medicine man; Sonya falls in love with his abilities to lay down a track in the recording studio. It is apparent that everyone is getting on each other’s nerves trying to hold together their recording “estate.” The biggest difference between Chekhov’s work and Turner’s is that the amount of love these characters have for one one another is abundant in the former, but quite lacking in the latter.
Larry Floyd’s Boss and Afua Richardson’s Sonya are the most bogged-down here as they go through the play and their end-of-act monologues in a style more suited to an after-school special than Chekhov’s lofty tragicomic serial. Kenton Demetrius Williams is just plain stuck as Hermes (Astrov), as Turner seems to have decided to make his performance devoid of any struggle and subsequently any consequence. Unfortunately, looking pretty is not enough for Susan Simon’s Helena to have a struggle either. In contrast, Chekhov’s acne-ridden Waffles has been much more successfully transformed into a pissed-off DJ, played by Kalia D. Foote, who does outstanding work here.
The proviso to this review, though, is that modernization is still a very important way of gaining a new, more diverse audience for the classics. I was very happy to see a real mix in the audience (a very positive characteristic of this festival). However, this will always come at a price, as modernization is extremely difficult if one does not find the right parallel. Turner’s ideals are extremely admirable, the only problem is that his desire surpasses his skill at this stage. Who knows though? If Turner learns his lessons from this try, there may be a very talented voice emerging from him in the future.