At Home With `Uncle Vanya' -- A Russian Director And An All- American Cast Have Been Presenting The Classic Play In Living Rooms Around Town

It is another quiet evening at the country home of Uncle Vanya.

The farm-owner Vanya sits at a lace-covered table in his dining room, sipping tea from the samovar and complaining about his life to a friend and neighbor, the physician Astrov. An elderly servant huddles nearby with her mending. Another family retainer softly strums his guitar.

And just a few inches away, seated on chairs and couches in the adjacent living room, about three dozen people are eavesdropping and quietly reacting to every word Vanya and his circle have to say.

You might not guess it from the homey setting, or the conversational tones the actors speak in. But this is a professional stage production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."

And a highly unusual one, which deposits the classic drama about love and disappointment in late 19th-century Russia right in your lap.

Staged by visiting Russian director Leonid Anisimov, and presented by the newly formed local company, The Art Theatre of Puget Sound, this "Uncle Vanya" is making the rounds of 16 private homes in the vicinity.

The cast includes such well-seasoned local stage veterans as Marjorie Nelson, Anthony Lee and Mark Jenkins. And they've enacted their Russian characters in the woodsy Eastside cottage of a young software executive, at a posh lake-view estate in Laurelhurst, and in a Ballard bungalow with room for 10 patrons.

The actors have changed into their costumes in borrowed bedrooms and kitchens, and used whatever lamps were handy for lighting.

And the Chekhov play, in a new English translation by Anisimov and Seattle poet Carol Levin, has been performed at a deliberately leisurely tempo. It runs four hours - with several breaks for pirogi, borscht and other Russian snacks.

"It's a completely different theatrical experience," says Ed Bottler, who donated his own home for a show viewed by Pam Schell (wife of Mayor Paul Schell), the Rev. Samuel McKinney and Seattle Center Director Virginia Anderson, among others.

"You're right there with the actors, literally cheek by jowl," Bottler notes. "And it's a very interesting way to see a play."

"I didn't know what to think when it began," recalled Superior Court Judge Janice Niemi, of another performance. "But the acting was really very good, and you just got drawn into it in a different way."

For those who didn't get an invite to the intimate, in-house airings, you can still catch this "Uncle Vanya." It plays July 8-11 at Freehold Theatre on Capitol Hill, and July 15-18 in Tacoma's Norton Clapp Theater.

But even in more traditional theatrical settings, patrons will be limited to about 60. And they will be seated very near to the actors, to promote an up-close-and-personal connection.

Actor-audience proximity is crucial to Anisimov. The Vladivostok Chamber Theatre, Anisimov's company in Siberia, has a 350-seat venue but often performs for 30 to 40 spectators at a time - by design.

"This way it is not a performance," Anisimov says in Russian, through a translator. "It is the collision of life and performance. Then we can understand more and more of life in theater and theater in life - as Shakespeare believed, and Plato before him."

Anisimov has taken some flak from other Russian theater artists who consider such cozy shows "elitist." But his intimate, detailed stagings of works by Chekhov and other Russian greats have stirred strong interest abroad - especially in Japan and in Seattle.

In 1995, Seattle's Pilgrim Center for the Arts hosted a short run of Anisimov's version of "The Seagull" by Chekhov, with Russian actors.

In 1998, when Anisimov returned to teach at Cornish College, Freehold and Tacoma Little Theatre brought his troupe back to do their glacially paced but mesmerizing edition of Gorki's "The Lower Depths."

"It was the depth and maturity of the acting, and the sense of truth consistent in the entire ensemble, that most struck me," says Robin Lynn Smith, artistic director of Freehold and a force behind the new Art Theatre of Puget Sound.

"Seeing Leonid's work, and how he manifested the invisible truth of these plays, I realized that many American productions of Chekhov miss out on the layers underneath the surface of the scripts. And I knew we could really learn from him."

When Smith invited Anisimov to assemble an "Uncle Vanya" in Seattle, with an all-American cast, finding actors was no problem. The director himself enlisted University of Washington instructor Mark Jenkins to play Vanya.

Marjorie Nelson, an Off Broadway and Seattle Repertory Theatre veteran, took the role of Vanya's mother, Maria Vasilyevna. Bart Smith (the show's producer) and Anthony Lee (who now lives in Los Angeles), agreed to alternate as Astrov.

Lee temporarily left behind a flourishing Hollywood career to tackle the project. (He's been featured in TV's "Brooklyn South" and "N.Y.P.D. Blue," and is in a new Burt Reynolds film, "Waterproof.")

"It was perfect timing for me to do this," says Lee, an African American. "The thing about Chekhov's work is that it's really about playing scenes with great integrity. Being black or white or anything else is irrelevant. It's about the truth of the words and the feelings."

Through five intense weeks of rehearsals, Anisimov spoke Russian, translated into English by his assistant Anna Akhmylovskaya. Yet, according to Jenkins, "Communication was not a problem. There's just one overwhelming difference between the way Leonid directs and most Americans do. It's his huge attention to every single moment of the play. Nothing is glossed over."

For his part, Anisimov liked directing Americans for a change. "They love to work," he says. "Russian actors can be very lazy."

Originally, this cross-cultural experiment was slated to end after the Tacoma run of "Uncle Vanya." But reaction has been so positive, more house shows may be offered this fall. Each one takes about $2,200 to produce (including actors' fees), a cost hosts either cover themselves or ask their guests to share in.

Some performances have also been subsidized by Art Theatre of Puget Sound, which raised $30,000 in cash from individual patrons and $70,000 in other donations (housing, food, travel) to fund the project.

Plans are also afoot to take the production to Vladivostok next summer for an international Chekhov festival.

------------ Performances ------------

"Uncle Vanya" will play July 8-11 at Freehold Theatre, 1525 10th Ave., Seattle. $18-22. 206-568-5893. It will also play July 15-18 at Norton Clapp Theater, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma. $15. 253-756-3419. To inquire about house performances, call 206-568-5893.