Culture

Hunter College’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ Gets Top Reviews

People sitting around a table.

The college’s infant Hunter Theater Project’s first production of “Uncle Vanya” has met with rave reviews, putting the Frederick Loewe Theater on the map, and making this experiment in creating accessible professional shows for students an immediate success. Student tickets for the show are just $15, well below the price for this caliber of professional theater.

The show opened on Sept. 7 and is directed by Richard Nelson, and was translated by Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This production made its debut on the west coast this year at San Diego’s The Old Globe and will run here at Hunter through Oct. 28.

The New York Times’ famed critic Ben Brantley said that out of the dozen versions of “Uncle Vanya” he has seen, none felt “as immediately personal or as emotionally coherent as this Hunter Theater Project production.” The Washington Post’s theater critic Peter Marks called it “a heart-piercing production as sublime as I’ve ever seen Chekhov performed.”

Uncle Vanya,” one of Chekhov’s most well-known plays, takes place in Russia during the 19th Century and revolves around the life of an older man named Vanya, short for Voynitsky. Vanya is the head of his working-class household, and he and his niece Sonya’s lives have been made miserable after the visit of Sonya’s father, Serebryakov, and his young wife, Elena. The cast stars Celeste Arias as Elena, Jon DeVries as Alexander, Kate Kearney-Patch as Marina, Jesse Pennington as Mikhail, Jay O. Sanders as Vanya, and Yvonne Woods as Sonya.

Gregory Mosher, chair of the theater department, created the Hunter Theater Project as an effort to connect theater with a new young audience without membership fees or season ticket sales like many other non-profit theaters. The program also wants to bring back the intimate part of theater as the Loewe building is a 50 x 54 black box performance space where audiences can feel like they are a part of the show. But perhaps most importantly, plays produced by the Hunter Theater Project are intended to be accessible in cost. A general ticket is $37 – an amount that was crowd-sourced as a fair price – and a non-hunter student ticket is $15 and $7 for Hunter students.

The idea came out of a graduate course Mosher taught at his previous post at Columbia University, where he and his students studied ways to develop affordable and entertaining theater beyond the formulas already used by commercial productions and nonprofit theaters.

Donors subsidize production costs, so the cost of the ticket price can be lower. A grant from the Backstage Trust, which focuses on projects with live performing arts, got the project started.

“We could have charged more, but I thought it was wrong, and that accessibility should be key for the Hunter Theater Project,” Mosher said.  Mosher also explained that the actors are professional union actors but are working for less than their usual rate thanks to an arrangement with the union.

“They’re working for much less than they would on Broadway or Lincoln Center because they know this is a special opportunity to make something new and play for a much younger-than-usual audience,” Mosher said.

“Uncle Vanya” has brought a lot of attention to the Hunter Theater Department, which operates out of the Baker Theater building on East 68th Street, between Park and Lexington avenues.

“Gregory Mosher is trying to put Hunter more on the map and boost its reputation as a great theater department,” said Professor Nemuna Ceesay. “The fact that the show is getting good press and bringing new people to Hunter brings hope that the department can continue to grow its status in the New York theater and educational communities.”

Ceesay hopes this first success of the project will help increase student involvement in future productions. “I think that students get nervous when they hear they have to see a Chekov play or a Shakespeare play. There is an assumption that these plays are wordy, hard to understand, old and irrelevant,” she said. “I hope that upon seeing Uncle Vanya, my students realized that these plays, though old, still deal with a lot of the same themes that we come across every day.”

Students within the theater department are also excited about what opportunities the program may bring to their major.

“If students are in the theater program just like me, they can have opportunities to help out with plays,” said theater major Chelsea Tigson. “My theater production class, we were ushering for the production of Uncle Vanya, which is an experience.”

Tigson hopes more people will be exposed to the program because of low ticket prices. “A lot more people are coming to see the play, and by that, they’re coming to Hunter. They’re giving discounts to students, and that’s a great way to expose them to the theater space.”

Richard Nelson’s “Uncle Vanya” will be playing till Oct. 28. For tickets and more information visitHuntertheaterproject.org.

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