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A CurtainUp Review
The Three Sisters
By Elyse Sommer
By the time the curtain goes down on the 1996-97 season, New York theater goers will have had a chance to see three very different versions of Anton Chekhov's sad and saddening The Three Sisters. Last November the Sovremennick Theater of Moscow paid a short visit to Manhattan with a Russian language, (with earphones for simultaneous translation), version in the style of the original Moscow Theater's production by Constantin Stanislavsky. In February, (and now previewing), there's the Roundabout's all-star production shepherded by the much heralded and often controversial director Scott Elliott. And for an all too brief run, (1/16-2/02), we have Richard Schechner's ingenious and stimulating adaption at the La MaMa First Floor Theater in the East Village.
Does the play have enough dimension and relevance to warrant three separate productions within such a short time? The answer is a resounding yes. The story of an army general's family trapped in a provincial town and yearning for a return to the more creative and fulfilling life they enjoyed while growing up in Moscow remains one of the most moving dramas of our time. The combination of circumstance and personal weakness, the tendency to wrap our dreams and ambitions around an unattainable future resonates now as then, here as in Russia. Richard Schechner's unusual and ingenious interpretation of the play so reinforces its power and adaptability that the idea of seeing the forthcoming Roundabout revival becomes all the more intriguing, not at all a case of one being a "spoiler" for the other. For now, let's look at how Schechner, a professor of Performance Studies at NYU and founder of the East Coast Artists who make up the cast of this Three Sisters have managed to perform each of the four acts in a different dramatic style while remaining completely faithful to Chekhov's original text (translated for the company by Michele Minnick).
What happens is that, while the play continues to div just a few years, the setting and acting styles for each act are drastically different. Act one is in the manner of the original 1901 Moscow Theater production. The furnishings and clothes are typical of those of a family where no one's been raised to work. This first act will be most reminiscent of any previous productions of this play you may have seen.
Act two picks up on the underlying threads of the social upheavals that were on the horizon at the time and which are announced by Baron Tusenbach who welcomes the fact that a storm is coming which w"ill blow away all the laziness, the indifference, the boredom, and the prejudice against work which is ruining our society." The setting is post-Bolshevik Revolution, circa 1921. The stage is almost bare, the actors wear workers' tunics and boots, and their interaction is in the revolutionary theater style, (also known as "biomechanics") of Vsevelod Meyerhold. Another Prozorov sister is now working but the grimness of the setting underscores the fact that even if things change, people will continue to find life hard and disappointing. Irina describes her job as a clerk as "work without poetry, without meaning" and the baron sees ever more cultural and scientific changes but knows that "in a thousand years people will still sigh and complain 'How hard life is!'--and yet they'll still be afraid of death and unwilling to die."
Act 3 brings yet another configuration. The play's provincial quiet has been literally set on fire, as in 1812 the city of the sisters' dreams, Moscow, went up in flames--an act of carelessness that turned into a symbolic signal of the French Revolution. The audience sees a very different burnt-out scene, a 1951-style Gulag camp, with the actors in coats with hammer-and-sickle insignia and grimly assembling and disassembling brick walls. In short, they present the visual reality of Vershinin's announcement that the troops will be transferred, maybe to Siberia. This reality is also a grim answer to Vershinin's description of finding his children in their pajamas, safe for now, but their faces filled with fear and setting off the despairing question "what will these children have to go through for the rest of their lives?" This picture of lumps of humanity scrabbling for survival make Irina's tearful W"here...Where has it all gone?" all the more poignant. Her despair at forgetting the Italian word for window and the realization that she will never go back to Moscow thus mirrors a far darker future.
Moving still further away from the original chronology of the play, Act 4 takes the audience into the theater of the here-and-now. The actors are dressed so that they could be members of the audience whom they address directly while we see and hear fragments from the previous acts in a gradually fading background--fading as if they had existed only in our imaginations.
It all adds up to a stunning theatrical experience that makes you forget-- (well, almost)--the hard folding chairs the length of the play--nearly three hours, with one intermission between Acts 2 and 3. Because the play continues to speak to the deepest feelings of people anywhere and at any period in history, the divergent dramatic styles and the visual time-traveling require no great stretch of the imagination but work perfectly with the intact script.
As for the actors, none is a star or gives a star performance, though all have their bravura moments. Maria Vail Guevara as the discontented wife, Masha, is better in her later than her earlier scenes, as is Shaula Chambliss, as Irina, the youngest of the three sisters. Rebecca Ortese, as Olga, the reluctant school principal shines throughout. Michele Minnick, the play's translator, makes herself well understood in the only all-in-Russian part of the maid Anfisa. Of the men, Lars Hanson is particularly good as Kulygin. All in all, the large cast ( 14 actors playing 15 parts), is most commendable as an ensemble that pulls together. This comment holds true of the group singing that is a background "character" in its own right. The uniformity of purpose also applies to the stage craft by Chris Muller (scenery), Linette Del Monico (costumes), Russell Champa ( lighting).
The shift in style and historic setting after the first act of this production is likely to upset the same purists who object to updated versions of any classic. Still, like Shakespeare's plays, Chekhov's have the kind of universality that can withstand a stylistic shaking up without losing the essential connection between characters and audience. In fact, Chekhov himself may have wanted to shake actors out of their adherence to one style. According to Lionel Trilling's commentary about Three Sisters in The Experience of Literature, when the actors wept after the play was first read to them at Stanislavsky's Moscow Theater, Chekhov told them that they were mistakenly interpreting it as a tragedy when it was in fact "a gay comedy, almost a farce." While some of the male characters do contain farcical elements, Chekhov was never really able to substantiate this statement and more than likely just trying to forestall Stanislavsky's tendency to direct the actors to give extremely deliberate and overly dramatic performances. East Coast Artist's Assistant Director JonathanWarman's program notes bear this out with a reference to a letter by Chekhov to his wife who played Masha in the original production, expressing concern over Stanislavsky's approach.
It's worth noting that the audience at the performance we attended was, as is usual at LaMaMa, predominantly young and clearly open to anything fresh--as long as it's good. A group of young people in the row in back of me skewered a "revisionist" adaptation of a classic they saw "uptown" and were wildly enthusiastic about this version of Three Sisters. Above all, these theater-savvy young audiences at this and other off-Broadway houses recently visited belie all the gloom and doom about disappearing theater audiences.
It would be nice if this production could have a longer life so that more people of all ages would have a chance to see it.