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A CurtainUp Review
The Three Sisters
By David Lipfert
Editor's Note: The visits of the Moscow Art Theatre to New York are not only rare but short so David Lipfert's review probably comes too late for anyone reading it to catch the last performance. However, since this Three Sisters is a groundbreaking production and with the documentary mentioned by David in the works, we post this review for all interested in this play and in Chekhov's work.
For a CurtainUp background piece on Chekhov's work, see Chekhov List of Facts
Other Chekhov plays reviewed and in our file cabinet:
The Three Sisters(La Mama production)
The Three Sisters (Roundabout Production)
In only their third appearance in America, the Moscow Art Theatre brought a lively production of the Chekhov work that we here most associate with the famed troupe. Artistic Director Oleg Efremov has expanded Chekhov's naturalism by incorporating stylized elements such as distributing across the stage the actors engaged in conversation in Act I. This is a far cry from the hyper-realistic production that this same company brought in 1965, I am told.
Valeri Leventhal's elaborately-constructed set showing one long interior wall with windows and recesses revolves to show the exterior of the Prozorov house. A curtain of magical birch trees surrounds the set, while a turntable the width of the entire BAM Opera House stage sets each act in motion. With each act, the actors are pushed closer to the front until the tragic final scene.
Founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky nearly 100 years ago, Moscow Art Theatre was the exponent of the Stanislavsky system or method, as we know it. His system was meant to counteract the exaggerated style then in vogue with one of naturalism. Transplanted to America, Stanislavsky's system became method acting where the actor must search within himself for the motivation for each line. As with any concept that becomes fossilized, the method has led many actors and directors to exaggerated approaches that have more to do with egotism than theatrical truth. After all, Stanislavsky was merely asking for actors to portray their characters honestly so that the audience would be convinced, in other words, to represent nature accurately.
Checkhov's Three Sisters follows the cultured Prozorov family over several years in small town far from the Moscow where they all yearn to return. Three sisters each experience fundamental events that will change their lives. Spinster Olga is drawn further into her work as school administrator. Unhappily married Masha meets the love of her life, Lt. Colonel Vershinin, who is transferred to distant barracks. Idealistic Irina has her dreams of a normal life shattered with the death of her fiancee in a duel. Brother Andrei's escapism increasingly puts the lifestyles of his sisters in jeopardy because of his gambling debts. The sisters look down on his wife, Natalya, who is decidedly not of their class, even as she emphatically takes charge in the family house. At the end, all are left to ponder a future very different from that for which they had hoped.
In this production, the sisters' three alternative approaches to life are clearly delineated. Vera Sotnikova's moody Masha shows her dramatic side as she collapses after bidding farewell to Stanislav Lubshin's earnest Vershinin. Olga Barnet offers a committed Olga, the sister who must be strong for the others. As Irina, Polina Medvedeva shows Irina's youth by accentuating a single characteristic in each act. Her disdainful dismissal of would-be Solyony (Aleksei Jarkov) is given the proper emphasis as the catalytic event of the play in Mr. Efremov's direction. Natalia Egorova intelligently plays Natalya more as ebullient but protective rather than the usual spiteful twist we frequently see.
Even more impressive are the performances of the supporting cast. Mr. Jarkov makes Solyony a believable alternative to the Baron and not a simple boor. As the doctor Chebutykin, Viacheslav Nevinny steals many scenes in the second half. Andrei Miagkov displays an understanding but not stupid Kulygin. Playing Anfisa, Iya Savvina may be known to some as the lead in the Russian cult film Lady with the Little Dog (1960). Diana Korzun in the small role of the Maid should be someone to watch; her spontaneity and involvement in each scene is characteristic of the best Russian stage tradition.
The two players who seem closest to the more self-involved variety of Stanislavsky's system are Dimitri Brusnikin as Andrei and especially Viktor Gvozditsky (Baron Tuzenbach), who seems to be acting for himself. Mr. Efremov created a moving moment for Mr. Brusnikin as he hugs the Ferapont (Vladlen Davydov) from behind while lamenting his emotional isolation.
Some aspects of this Three Sisters are especially worth noting. In an uncustomary but welcome touch, Mr. Efremov has the players improvising dialogue while seated at the table. At least three of the players showed their musical talents to remind us how important music is to the Prozorov household. Some reviewers have noted small adjustments to the sequence of action, but this is only a minor distraction. Actually showing the uninvited mummers cavorting about at the end of Act II defines the atmosphere within the house.
In contrast to the spirited action on stage, the voice of the simultaneous translator quickly becomes tiresome, especially when an attempt is made to add excitement. Repertorio Espaņol's method of having men's parts read by a man and women's by a woman is an option that BAM might consider.
A documentary on the Moscow Art Theater's visit to New York is in the works.
The production is performed with one intermission. Running time is about 3 hours 15 minutes.