About 10-15 years ago, it seemed one of the big trends around Chekhov productions was to ratchet up the comedy. All that tristesse and Russian pathos had become so clichéd that directors tried to outdo one another in getting audiences to laugh — too often by hard-hitting with effects that were more vulgar sit-com-y than Chekhovian non-sequitur (Kulygin’s “nonsense”).
So it intrigued me to notice some of the audience bafflement during intermission at last night’s preview of The Three Sisters in a new production by the Seagull Project soon to open at ACT Theatre. “It sounds like theater of the absurd,” insisted the woman next to me. “You can’t keep it straight what they want!”
Not humor and laughs, but frustration over the confusion of tone — which is exactly what makes Chekhov, and in particular The Three Sisters, such a formidable challenge to direct. Not the relaxed “plotlessness,” but the matter of tone For all the self-congratulation we hear about how our we “break down barriers” nowadays, so many are still glued to obvious genre distinctions: is it supposed to be a comedy? a tragedy? avant-garde? (I sensed similar reactions recently to Seattle Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, that notorious “problem play.”)
For me, the two characters who most successfully establish real Chekhovian ambiguity in John Langs’s thoughtful production (using Carol Rocamora’s translation) — though the director relies a bit too much on leitmotivic tics that turn characters into caricatures — are CT Doescher’s poignantly resigned but cheerful Tusenbach and the intelligent, suave, but gently bitter Vershinin of David Quicksall.
Julie Briskman comes closest to getting the Chekhov chiaroscuro as the oldest sister, Olga. Her mood swings feel more integrated and organic, whereas they come across as merely “quirky” in several other characters’ portrayals. Alexandra Tavares’ Masha is especially compelling in her “stolen moment” of brief happiness with Vershinin. Sydney Andrews conveys the woozy longing of Irina as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood in the first act; her later development still seems to be a work in progress. John Abramson’s captures the proto-Uncle Vanyan angst of their brother Andrey Sergeevich as he tries to put up a bold front in the face of his crushing disappointments.
Hannah Victoria Franklin plays up Natalya’s bossy boorishness and her independent streak, but the class resentment that fuels her seems lost in translation. Recently seen doing good work in New City Theater’s Hamlet, Brandon J. Simmons takes a more straightforwardly comic approach as Kulyigin but gives his pomposity an awkward edge that pays off well in his final scene with Masha.
Langs is particularly good at organizing this talented cast in the larger ensemble scenes; he’s not able to solve the complex issues of Chekhov’s tempo and pacing from these to intimate encounters — but this will probably improve as the production matures. He neatly frames the play with marching scenes featuring the army arriving at and then departing from the provincial garrison town where the Prozorov family languishes. They stomp in to the beating of a big bass drum, automatons ready for the call of duty; but at they end we see them marching in silent slow motion far upstage — and can imagine them heading straight for the trenches of the First World War.
Among the delights of this production are the design elements: Jennifer Zeyl’s birch-framed set with tricky Chekhovian seasonal changes beautifully established by Robert J. Aguilar’s lighting. Robertson Witmer’s soundscape brings out the full range of Chekhov’s “score” — in this play whose subtexts include a major role for sounds: the forest echoes, a flock of birds passing, the wind, the magic of the spinning top given as a gift to Irina by the aging army doctor Chebutykin (such a powerful symbol of frenzied but futile action).
There’s another Chekhovian music in Péter Eötvös’ gorgeous opera distilled from the play: