Dallas — Dylan Key is young. That's the first thing I noticed about him when we sat down together to discuss his experience directing Uncle Vanya over coffee in Deep Ellum's Murray Street Coffeehouse, convenient to his post as artistic associate at Undermain Theatre across the street and to my own office in the Common Desk coworking space. I'm young. But Dylan Key is young. But Dylan Key's name is getting around town quickly, and in the best way.
In 2014, Key directed The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls and We are Proud to Present a Presentation… at Undermain. Key is stepping out of the Undermain's basement confines this month with his production of Anton Chekhov's timeless Uncle Vanya in Annie Baker's 2012 adaptation, which runs Feb. 5-22 in the Wyly Theatre's intimate ninth-floor performance space as the third show in the inaugural season of the radical-for-Dallas-concept, the Elevator Project.
Our conversation veered from Annie Baker to Chekhov to Dallas as a regional theater powerhouse and about the state of the dramatic arts in Dallas to why the University of Dallas has such a good English program, putting out consistently impressive alumni who are not afraid to take creative risks in their careers at early stages. But the main gist of the conversation ran with the tripartite question: "Why this play? Why now? And why in this space?"
The answer to all three is simple, well, as simple as putting together a play in a space that is not quite home can be for a budding drama director and a cast of actors looking to flex their acting muscles in the classically cool Chekhovian style. Key explains that Kyle Lemieux of the Dallas Actor's Lab approached him about directing a play as part of the Elevator Project that would see some of Dallas's best underground (for lack of a better term; or literal in the case of Undermain) theater groups put on productions at the previously unavailable/unaffordable AT&T Performing Arts Center. Lemieux and the DAL are known for intimate, actor-driven plays, and wanted a characteristically DAL performance to fit in the Wyly.
Key is drawn to Chekhov for his actor-driven scripts, and coming off the Russian cultural experience that was The Fairy-Tale Lives of Russian Girls felt inspired to cast his lot with another Russian play (and thank him for that), choosing Uncle Vanya in large part for Annie Baker's recent adaptation, which has not yet run in Dallas. (Another part of our conversation attempted to answer the question: "Why isn't Chekhov performed more often in Dallas?")
So this performance becomes an even bigger deal: first, the Elevator Project; second, the Annie Baker adaptation.
Asked what show-goers might expect from Key's direction, how it might differ from previous performances they might have seen, he answers, "An intimate, living room feel. With the actors in the lead. With Uncle Vanya, all of our cast have gotten so into their roles, it has been inspiring to watch them rehearse privately and then come out onto the stage and give themselves into the role." Key's answer fits perfectly with the mission of the Dallas Actor's Lab to provide intimate, actor-driven performances, and promises to treat the viewer to a unique stage layout, no secrets given away here, that fully utilizes the Wyly's unique ninth-floor space—which has previously only been used for public performance with the Dallas Theater Center’s 2013 production of John Logan’s play about Mark Rothko, Red.
As for the adaptation itself, the name Annie Baker should ring a bell—or many bells—as rising star in the theater world. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014 for her incisive play The Flick, which just ran at the Undermain Theatre. Known for her natural dialogue and all-too-real characters, Chekhov is a natural fit for her growing oeuvre. (Her early plays Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens have been performed in Dallas, the latter title twice in 2013.)
In her adaptation, based off a "literal translation" of the original Russian text made by Margarita Shalina, Baker's Uncle Vanya won the 2013 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play after its off-Broadway premiere which, interestingly, Key notes, ran at the same time as the overtly traditional Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchett at the massive City Center Theater—quite an interesting contrast in Vanyas in NYC in 2012! (It should also be noted that Baker isn’t the only contemporary playwright inspired by Chekhov: Sarah Ruhl and Aaron Posner, among others, are actively adapting the Russian’s work; and Donald Margulies and Christopher Durang have recent plays inspired by his style and characters.)
The ATTPAC website notes that Baker's adaptation was written with the “goal of creating a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions in the provinces in 1898” and that "Ms. Baker’s Uncle Vanya introduces 21st century audiences to Chekhov’s enduring wit, insight and emotional depth."
Hyperbole and the dubious claim that this will sound to your ears as it did to some 1898 provincial Russian hardly matters, but what does matter is that the question of translation is one that even the most cultured American rarely thinks of, even when devouring Chekhov plays or Tolstoy novels (or Girls with Dragon Tattoos, etc.), and I think it is an important distinction to make that this translation actively seeks to be different from previous translations of Uncle Vanya, and one the show-goer should pay attention to, asking themselves how this language differs from previous versions of the show they've seen, or what their expectations for a Chekhov performance might be. From there, the nuances of language and performance will open up the issue of translation into minds of the entire audience, and the show, and everyone in the audience, will be all the better for it.
I was asked to write this piece because of my dual role as a publisher of translated literature for Deep Vellum and as a scholar and translator of Russian literature, not necessarily because I am an expert in theater. And so I originally thought that my piece would focus on Annie Baker's adaptation and how it differs from any of the other widely read Chekhov translations. But after reading Baker's translation, I decided to focus on the work itself and how the production would differ. Because Baker's adaptation is not radical at all, it's a nice translation that uses colloquial speech in a modern take on Chekhov's own Russian, in a process that started with one translator, Margarita Shalina, providing what they call a "literal translation"—or what those in the translation business call a "crib"—that Baker then revised through her own creative process a uniquely Annie Baker translation of Chekhov.
This is fairly standard translation practice, whether both acts of translation (the "crib" and the editing) are done by one person or, as in this case, two, as the current most famous Russian translators in the world work, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. She provides the direct Russian-English crib, and Pevear polishes it. I could nitpick one or two word choices here or there in Baker's translation, but that's a useless exercise as translation is the practice of choices, and singling out word choice discrepancies misses the forest for the trees: the main point is that Chekhov is a master of the accessible, using natural language and real characters in realistic settings to get at the universal nature of the human experience. Baker is building a legendary career for herself off of the same traits, and it is on perfect display in her translation of Uncle Vanya.
We can take for example the following excerpts, first using the at-hand edition of Uncle Vanya I have on my own bookshelves, the Oxford World's Classics edition of Chekhov's Five Plays in Ronald Hingley's translations. I could choose any single sentence in the entire play and the comparisons and contrasts between the two translations would be similar; you'd see that Baker's characters talk like Baker characters, but with Russian names, and with an increased emphasis on the pauses—one of Baker's hallmark traits. One of the complaints of Baker's adaptation is that the characters speak a 21st-century English but still talk about horse-drawn carriages and samovars.
I'm the type of reader who doesn't mind that at all, especially since she uses the Russian patronymic naming system and introduces an entirely new Russian word into the English language ("ты"; the Russian equivalent of the French tu or the Spanish tú). On the other hand, Hingley's characters speak a pronounced, Victorian British English that is quite lovely, but filled with Anglicizations of the worst order: changing the name Elena/Yelena to Helen should be a crime, or at least cause for concern among any discerning reader who would be against the Anglicized homogenization of world culture in such a manner. We should read translations to get outside information, perspectives, or style, not enforce our own domesticized mindset on the foreign text. But look how Hingley polishes over this question of "ты", using a quite-nice workaround of "making friends," which is certainly what switching from formal to informal speech in Russian implies. These are the types of questions that make reading translations so interesting, learning how to say, feel, and read the foreign in our own context.
Here are the excerpts, first from Hingley and then from Baker:
[Helen comes in.]
HELEN (opens the windows). The storm's over. What wonderful air. [Pause.] Where's the doctor?
SONYA. Gone home. [Pause.]
HELEN. When are you going to stop sulking? We've done each other no harm, so why should we be enemies? Can't we call it off?
SONYA. I've wanted to myself. [Embraces her.] Let's not be angry any more.
HELEN. That's splendid. [Both are very moved.]
SONYA. Has Father gone to bed?
HELEN. No, he's in the drawing-room. We don't speak to each other for weeks on end and heaven knows why. [Noticing that the sideboard is open.] What's this?
SONYA. Dr. Astrov has been having some supper.
HELEN. There's wine too. Let's drink to our friendship.
SONYA. Yes, let's.
HELEN. From the same glass. [Fills it.] That's better. So we're friends now, Sonya?
SONYA. Friends, Helen. [They drink and kiss each other.] I've wanted to make it up for ages, but I felt too embarrassed somehow. [Cries.]
HELEN. But why are you crying?
SONYA. Never mind, it's nothing.
HELEN. There, there. That'll do. [Cries.] You silly girl, now I'm crying too. [Pause.]
Enter Yelena Andreyevna.
(opening the window)
The rain stopped.
The air feels amazing.
Where's the doctor?
When are you going to stop being mad at me? Neither one of us did anything wrong. Why do we have to be enemies? It's too much . . .
. . . I wanted to make up but I . . .
(she embraces Yelena)
No more being angry.
They are both excited.
Did Papa go to bed?
No. He's sitting in the living room.
Sometimes we go weeks without speaking to each other. God knows why.
(seeing that the sideboard is open)
Mikhail Lvovich wanted a snack.
There's wine . . .come on. Let's drink Bruderschaft.
From one glass . . .
(she pours it)
It's better this way.
So. I can call you "ты"?
They interlock their arms, drink, and kiss.
I've wanted to make up for a long time, but I was ashamed, I guess . . .
She starts crying.
Why are you crying?
I don't know. I'm just crying.
That happens . . .
(she starts crying)
You nut. Now you're making me cry.
They cry together. After a pause:
Dallas is being presented the unique opportunity to enjoy one of the most enjoyable plays in the global repertoire in a new adaptation by a playwright known for her natural touch, much like the original playwright himself, all directed by a local rising star, given the chance to helm a career-defining performance and electing to let the actors lead themselves for this intimate, unique performance.
Combining the playwright's contemporary adaptation with a unique stage setup and an intrepid young director is exactly the type of performance that sets Dallas theater apart from so many other regional theater hubs, and promises the type of performance that even the most unfamiliar with the current state of theater could find much to love. Myself included.
Would Chekhov approve? Absolutely. This promises to be a can't-miss show.
» Will Evans, who has degrees in Russian literature and Russian studies, is the publisher and executive director of Deep Vellum Publishing, a non-profit Dallas-based translation publishing house that, in 2014, published its first translation, of Mexican author Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft. Look for upcoming translations of works by Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, French writer Anne Garrêta, Iceland’s Jón Gnarr, Russia’s Mikhail Shishkin and many others.