Meditation on Translations: New Saloon’s MINOR CHARACTER

Photo by Elke Young

Photo by Elke Young

What is translation?

A translation is using language, usually text, to create an equivalent meaning of another language, usually text, in order to communicate. With each other. Something. In appearance, a translation should be identical to its original. Ideally it is a carbon copy, a Xerox, a mirror, an echo – but we know most translation is mediocre, like buying a second rate memory foam mattress (it’s just not Tempurpedic®). Something is always lost in between. This is the given. And the liminal space between translations contains the untranslatable: a feeling, a landscape, the smell of the air. This is painfully familiar. My mother is a native Japanese speaker and, when we fight, we revert to different languages to access our power, and everything devolves to raised voices, or even worse: our bruised egos mute inside an envelope of contempt. Language fails us. We are no longer on the same page, and for a second we question our relationship to each other – is this really my mother? Could this really be my daughter? (But not to worry. By now we’ve learned to communicate in other ways…)

So what happens when not one, but six translations come head to head with each other: compared, dissected, multiplied, and layered, one right on top of the other? This was the bold and impossible task of New Saloon’s Minor Character: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time (which ran at The Invisible Dog June 17 – June 25). There are sixteen performers in this version of Chekhov, with many of them playing triplicates of one character, like refracted lines of psychic energy. They wear uniform costumes in primary colors (playfully designed by Emily Oliviera), so as to indicate very clearly who is playing which role. These characters were not ordinary: they each seemed to represent a version of translation, often speaking at the same time and saying the same thing, but the language was always slightly different. At times, they used the translations to speak to each other (It’s exactly like in your head, when you weigh two options and one part of you says “do it” and the other says “don’t”. Now imagine yourself refracted or bent and speaking to each other). The multiple characters roam freely in the space recognizing the counterparts of the other roles as well as their own. They mingle, they touch, and they are not afraid to talk to each other. So what did this do to the actual play and the experience of watching it? Believe it or not, it made the play easier to follow. We were allowed to hear the text a number of times, performed a number of different ways. The translations began to speak to each other through the repetition. All of a sudden, that liminal space between translations was physicalized, embodied, I could see the engine of the human psyche, I could see the thoughts unfold. This gave way to a kind of playfulness where text could be thrown away, no longer precious. If you missed it the first time, it would be said again. Most likely in a different way, in a different body, and even a different gender. The translations offered much space for lightness and there was plenty of room for comedic relief. The Invisible Dog was uniquely transformed (by set designer Kristen Robinson) with a mixture of relic and kitsch objects, and easily became a playground for this psychic sprawl. The simple but effective play between light and dark (designed by Masha Tsimring) lent itself to the melancholy in the face of the unattainable, the human heart, the insufferable loneliness when you are in a crowd.

The triplicate roles were not performed identically, but rather, each actor held their own version of the character, and this was performed with precision and consistency. At times, hearing a lot of people talk at the same time creates a dullness or lackadaisical quality (not in the acting, but just in the air) that would swallow you up and spit you back out a few moments later in the play, but this was all meant to be, the play was unapologetic and forthright. I had no problem going along with it, and I never felt like I was missing out on anything. Of course, when there are so many actors performing the same role at once, you inevitably begin to follow your favorites. It’s perhaps unfair of me to say this out loud (because all of the performers were so damn good) but I was especially drawn throughout the evening to Madeline Wise’s Doctor, Ugo Chukwu’s Vanya, Fernando Gonzalez’s Sonya and Jeanna Phillips’s Yelena.  

Something else came to me during the piece: all of the characters played by multiple actors inhabit youthfulness. All of them at the height of their vitality and strength. And here in the landscape of this play, these youthful characters were trapped in a house by the countryside, and many a times they lament in their own way, “I’m dying of boredom.” And here is where canon is made contemporary: we are now living in a time where we assume a multiplicity of identity all the time, what with access to unlimited information and social interactions in the comfort of our own home, through our keyboards and eyes. A greater crisis unfolds in New Saloon’s version of Uncle Vanya, the crisis of youth and its infinite options to express multiple voices, multiple identities. There is the boredom of having too many choices, and of choosing nothing when faced with everything. The youth in this version, like every generation, are cooped up in their own minds. They may whine about being bored, but it’s safer to be in the suburbs, at home. In Morgan Green’s staging, this idleness of youthful multiplicity bursts at the seams in a physical way. They are restless and reckless and they take over this simple country house. As a counterpoint to all this youthful energy, there are three other characters that are played by one person each, and these actors are seasoned veterans. In them we experience the singularity of voice that comes with age. This is the voice of nostalgia and reflection. Their presence was grounding, demi-god-ish, and we leaned into their speech. They often emerged like ghosts from the corners of the house, the restlessness of youth just a flicker of memory to them. They were reminders of our own fate, of failed choices. In one moment, we watch the Professor (David Greenspan) deliciously get up from his wheelchair, and we hang on him with bated breath. A reminder of our own mortality.

In the polarity of young and old, there lies the lunacy of the human mind, a peephole into our own fraught psychosis.

The second act gets even more metaphysical, more amplified. The characters that were performing in trios are tied together by their clothing, and they begin to shift and take on each other’s characters until there are now five Yelenas, five Doctors. There is a claustrophobia, a schizophrenia, treated with music (designed by Florian Staab) in a Wes Anderson-esque melodrama. Waffles (Milo Cramer) sings to us with ukulele about the prison of our mind, of exile. The restlessness increases, and it’s all leading up to the action. Then, as one would hope, many many Vanyas appear with guns and fail to shoot the Professor. Youth. Failure. The pressure finally released for a moment’s time. Boredom is solved. The retaliation is ecstasy and the action clears the brain of its neurosis, until Vanya is immediately flung back into his own cell, into exile, where he is left to brood and steep in his own failure for the rest of the year.

“Well…. Well, the way I see it, we human beings are meant to lead harmonious lives. Our bodies, our minds, our souls, even our clothes—they’re all meant to be in harmony.” – Astrov (Doctor)

What is this, harmonious?

Green directs our attention to Chekov’s definition of harmony. Harmony is necessarily work. To do one’s work well. Of doing things the right way. Everything is in its order and falling into place. You play your role, and this role may be a minor character. But you keep at it, and this will yield small and steady amounts of joy and success. This is where harmony exists for Chekov. These thoughts are, with detail and care, reflected in the play’s direction and aesthetic: there is a uniformity in the styles of acting that have been utilized, in costumes, in the movement of the characters. But Green shows us that the more we attempt to cling onto this imagined stasis of harmony, the more disharmonious the human psyche gets. When there is a clash of egos, time appears to speed up, and everyone is barely making sense. We are faced with the impossible task of achieving normalcy amidst the chaos of human desire and emotion. Green and her company have put great effort into staging these translations, managing to find nuance between the bold and brash moments, the soft and delicate ones, with clever mediation between design and performance in order to show us this fall from grace, where disharmony harmoniously rings.

There is a scene between the Yelenas and the Doctors when different maps of the surrounding land are introduced on different technological devices. It is revealed that the landscape around the house is changing. The economy is changing, the political climate is changing. The culture of the suburbs is changing. The urban city and all of its technologies are making its way into the house, and eventually, into us. The human is ultimately an outcome of its surroundings. What surrounds us? In the last Act, the city folk leave and the original house members are left to their work. The work is on laptop computers because it is the 21st century. Work no longer looks the way it did 100 years ago, back when Vanya would’ve been alive. The pressure to work, to live modestly and in tune with our environment is different. How do we face the impossible task of living in harmony with our physical surroundings (nature) when we are consciously destroying it? And how do we find peace within our internal nature when there is no more of the natural world around us? The trees in the courtyard glowed steady through the factory windows of the Invisible Dog, first built in 1863. Perhaps those trees were there back then, and perhaps not. Original songs (written by Deepali Gupta) sung acapella by the entire cast shadowed the trees sentiment: nature is truly beautiful.

At the play’s end, the actors pull up YouTube videos of different translations of Sonya’s last monologue performed by anonymous people. There is a circle of computer screens with different faces speaking at each other, the lights dim, and we are left with the lit up screens till the last monologue finishes. Perhaps this is a nod to where we are headed. Change is coming. It’s entering us, it’s already entered us, and it’s warped our psyche to the point where we are no longer alienated from each other, but from ourselves. We will all eventually exist as disembodied translations of ourselves. We won’t even know what we look like.

Photo by Elke Young

Photo by Elke Young

I was left with some questions for the company:

Why was Waffles the only youthful role with a singular voice? At times he even seemed to carry magical powers (like when he raised two actual waffles like tambourines and made all the characters dance delightfully to euro/techno-pop) And why was the 4th and last Act (an original adaption by company member Milo Cramer) performed only with singular characters? Cramer’s adaptation here is quip and contemporary, but the instant removal of all the multiple voices of each character’s psyche was jarring, stark. All of a sudden we were thrust into a normal, naturalistic play. Space between words evaporated, and it actually became harder to hear the language because we were forced to understand time and space back in its original form. It was like being rudely awakened from an intense dream. Then again, this could’ve been the intention all along.

Minor Character is a true feat of deconstruction, and a tremendous undertaking on the part of Green, New Saloon and their collaborators. They have taken a canonical work and have managed to stretch its imaginary spaces, making it instantly important and relevant, pushing the boundaries of adaption and translation work of plays to new height. The bar is set high now. Good luck climbing over it.

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