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A CurtainUp Review
First you see the set, which stretches clear across the whole front wall of the theater. At first it looks like nothing at all. Several somewhat cluttered cafeteria tables are lined up under rows of fluorescent strip lights. (I get it, but hate those eyeball-killing lights.) However, this set is far from nothing at all, as the apparently hastily thrown together design turns out to be something truly clever and complicated, employing live video close-ups of characters along with projected photographs and shots of various things. Occasionally the roaming camera focuses in on furnished rooms in a scale model that stands in for an old fashioned stage set.
Curt Columbus's clean translation is not an adaptation that involves audacious and drastic changes. He never ever loses sight of Chekhov. In fact, his entire approach to the work could be seen as Chekhovian, as he accomplishes much in a seemingly effortless modernization.
The language is updated, with speeches set for the contemporary ear. General long-windedness is trimmed to meet our modern frazzled idea of patience. Gradually a tonality is established, and as in reality and Chekov plays, scenes seem to create themselves as they go along, and life happens while characters are busy doing little mundane things and talking, sometimes apparently apropos of nothing.
At the start actors gather in the vast performance space at their leisure, hanging out. Seemingly offhand, they read their lines along with stage directions. Then as performance spaces are more or less assembled on the fly, the production slowly morphs into more conventional staging, moving from flat lighting and rehearsal tables to era-appropriate -and more agreeably lighted- sets. The arty self-consciousness of video vignettes changes to simple unadorned acting as the actors go from jeans to fin de siècle country clothes, long skirts and military uniforms.
Most of the pivotal events in the play, like a bold affair, reckless gambling, a duel, and more, occur offstage or between acts, leaving stage time free for talk, wistfulness, unreciprocated love, and exhaustion. Confined to provincial life and pining for the allure of Moscow, the sisters get through their days along with their brother, his wife, and their circle. There's some conjecture that things will be better in the remote future, but just about everyone seems to love the wrong person, be worn out, suffer from dashed hopes, and feel forced to settle for less.
Among the main reasons this Three Sisters is so remarkable is the ensemble. The three sisters, played by Katharine Powell, Sarah Sanford, and Mary Tuomanen, are Masha, Olga, and Irina, respectively. Each sister, so different, is owned by the actress playing her. All three of their performances are unforced, artless and uncontrived.
The Dr. Ivan Chebutikin role looks a lot easier than it actually is, and Scott Greer dispatches it handily. Ian Merrill Peakes is appealing as Vershinin, Masha's heartthrob. Vershinin's verbosity appears to have been slightly tamed here- thank you, Mr. Columbus. Luigi Sottile is a non-chubby, but fully realized Andre, and Rebecca Gibel as self-absorbed Natasha does 'annoying' very well. James Ijames contributes a beautifully restrained Baron. Each member of the assemblage including Jake Blouch, Sam Henderson, Daniel Ison, Louis Lippa, Cathy Simpson, and Charlie Thurston contributes to the success of the show. Pieces of wonderful music course through the performance, and these fine actors who are also musicians and singers can truly handle the tunes.
The first act of Terrence J. Nolen & Curt Columbus project might look almost as different to today's theater-goers who arrive at the Arden looking for conventional, vintage Chekhov — as Chekov's plays once looked to his first audiences. Imagine how startlingly different The Seagull must have been when it arrived on stage in 1896 in the midst of melodramatic 19th century theatre. The performance was roundly booed. Later, when Stanislavski picked it up and directed it, audiences caught up with Chekhov, who quickly became a celebrity.
Chekhov is in the air lately. A couple of much more altered neo-Chekhovian works out in the zeitgeist include PTC's current popular run of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. And recently I had the opportunity to read Stupid Fucking Bird, playwright and Arden Theatre cofounder Aaron Posner's laudable, impertinent take on The Seagull that's making the rounds after its premiere at Woolly Mammoth in 2013.
The Arden's director, cast, and designers have mastered the unobtrusive art of being understated and extraordinary at the same time. And this new translation hits all the right notes. Not over-simplified, it doesn't make judgments, but maintains Chekhov's deliberate irrelevancies and warmth as he writes of the tragic undertones in ordinary life, with its trivialities and thwarted dreams.