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Chekhov at Chautauqua

photo by Jim Findlay

Those who love Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters understand that as time passes, the world we know fades into the past. In time, we ourselves will be gone, and no one will remember our faces, or even our voices. The good news is that through the indelible impact we have on others, eventually, our lives will take on meaning, and the world will be a better place.

At least, that is the famous prophecy made by Olga, the oldest of the three sisters, in the final moments of Chekhov’s play.

This is also the hope of the theatrical experience—that we will enter the world of a play, and leave, somehow altered forever. On certain magical occasions, before the performance evaporates into time, the conflicts, sufferings, and victories played out by actors transcend mere diversion to become the kind of joy that affirms life itself.

These are the theatrical experiences that we never forget.

Those who have seen Three Sisters performed brilliantly know just how unforgettable it can be. When we recall the words of this great play, we often hear the voices of the actors who have spoken them. Olga is simply wrong when she predicts that future generations will not remember how many sisters there were. For those who love Chekhov, there were (and always will be) three.

Three Sisters: Olga, Masha and Irina, find themselves stagnating in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. Cultured and well educated, they yearn to return to their girlhood home in Moscow, where the ability to speak three languages might, on occasion, actually prove useful.

They find some amusement in the company of the military officers stationed in town, and as the play progresses, they latch onto glimmers of hope, but none is fulfilled. Their brother, Andrey, marries the odious and vulgar Natasha who overtakes and tyrannizes the house, even as his gambling addiction pulls the family into debt. Masha is unhappy in her marriage, and has become cynical. Irina settles on a man she does not love.

As desperation mounts, the three sisters are alarmed to realize that boredom has become the primary theme of their lives. That is not, of course, to suggest that they, themselves, are boring—anything but. Three Sisters is sustained by three and a half hours of brilliantly engaging conversation, monologue, and insight into the human condition.

For their current production of Three Sisters, Chautauqua Theater Company artistic directors Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny saw an opportunity to offer their audience something fresh, different, and memorable. They brought in director Brian Mertes, current head of the MFA directing program at Brown, who has made a name for himself as a director of Chekhov through epic environmental productions that he and his wife, director Melissa Kievman, have staged at their home on Lake Lucille in Rockland County. They engage a company of 30 visiting artists and enlist the support of their entire neighborhood to house and feed them. Then, after a week’s rehearsal, 400 people come to see a Chekhov play, fully staged using locations around the lake. Reportedly, these communal productions (Ivanov, Platonov, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, Seagull, Uncle Vanya) have been life-altering theatrical events for those involved.

Benesch and McSweeny envisioned the potential for similar flights of magic for their own version of Chekhov by a lake.

Inserting a director who develops his ideas collaboratively and intuitively during the rehearsal process was a risk in a summer festival, where time is limited and professional polish is expected. But the Chautauqua Theater Company has assembled a remarkable resident company to experiment with Mr. Mertes, comprised of young actors from some of the most highly regarded theater programs in the nation. And so, Benesch, who plays Olga, is joined by Laura Gragtmans, a Canadian actress studying at the Yale Drama School, as Masha; with Maryland native Charlotte Graham, a recent graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, as the youngest sister, Irina.

Added to the resident company, Chautauqua brings in seasoned actors like Lynn Cohen, who plays Anfisa, the old servant; Joel de la Fuente, familiar from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, who plays Masha’s love interest, Vershinin; Keith Randolph Smith, one of the great interpreters of August Wilson’s work, who here plays the drunken doctor, Chebutykin; and Ted Schneider, who can count among his credits four of the Mertes- Kievman stagings of Chekhov, here plays Masha’s tedious but well-meaning husband.

Director Mertes establishes his expressionistic mark in the very first moments of the play. Cacophonous electronic music anachronistically underscores our entry into the world of Chekov. When a clock striking twelve interrupts Olga’s immortal opening speech, in which she announces that it has been a year since father died, the chiming stops at ten. Benesch prompts the musicians who are creating the clock chimes to provide two more. When Irina trills her yearning to return to Moscow, this central desire of the play is underscored with an electronic blare, her relative youth and innocence amplified by placing her on a chair-swing in a short white dress. When characters are overcome with emotion, they hurl themselves offstage into a bank of mattresses.

Clearly this is an “Epic” production in the Brechtian sense, reminiscent of a Berliner Ensemble production of a classic, wherein Hedda Gabler might find that her furniture has attached itself to her gown, obliging her to drag it around the stage, a visual metaphor for her confining home life.

Mertes and the Chautauqua Company remain almost entirely faithful to Chekhov’s text, here rendered in the comfortably American prose of the famed translation by the late Paul Schmidt. But they do play within the text, energetically and capably exploring intentions, laughing at sad moments, searching through each character’s unstated desires.

At times, the process of experimentation has fragmented the play. Playful moments of discovery seem to stand in isolation from each other, like a loose collection of mismatched pearls. The action lacks a coherent through line, and choices often seem illogical. At various moments, for instance, the action dissolves into mysteriously motivated dances and seemingly unmotivated gestures. Two visually arresting but perplexing shower scenes can be included in this category. I found myself thinking, “What ARE they doing?”

At other times, critical lines of the plot are lost among the distractions. Vershinin’s passionate efforts to balance love and duty are diluted, for instance, and Chebutykin’s important confession that he loved the late mother of the three sisters is glossed over, as if they were inconsequential, submerged beneath the veritable circus that surrounds them.

The relationship most fettered by the frenetic goings-on is the fatal rivalry between Baron Tuzenbach and Captain Solyony. Charlie Thurston as the baron and Tyee Tilghman as the captain give the characters their all, but within this production, the volatile coupling is dissipated.

There are moments, however, that work exquisitely. I was quite moved by the staging of Vershinin’s declaration of love for Masha. As he begins his impassioned advance on the married woman, she thrusts a table onto its side, obliging him to woo her through the obstacle of a makeshift wall. Her physical evasions of a married man serve to heighten the intensity and frustration of their passion for each other. One might expect that the logical payoff would come in the scene of their final parting; it doesn’t.

The famed farewell between Masha and Vershinin is a collision of mismatched emotions and confused motivations. In its Chekhovian simplicity, the scene provides a perfect expression of the play’s theme of unfulfilled desires. As played on the Bratton stage, however, it is a clash of desires between Masha, Vershinin, and Olga. Mertes alters the scripted actions of the scene in order to reinterpret the spoken words.

Why does Olga passionately throw herself at Vershinin when he comes to say good-bye? (The script suggests a sympathetic and maternal gesture). Why does Vershinin aggressively throw himself at Masha despite his dutiful resolve to leave her? (The script specifies that she throws herself at him). Why does Vershinin order Olga to take Masha away from him in anger and disgust? (The script suggests that he wants Olga to comfort her younger sister).

Laughter abounds. True, Chekhov himself maintained that he was writing comedy, and there is great humor to be mined from the text. Masha’s dreary worldview, alone, affords notable chuckles. The text does not, however, sustain the sort of collegiate yuck fest we see here. At times, the effect is like watching scene parodies, rather than a faithful rendering of the play, and this production will, without question, not appeal to everyone.

And yet ...

This nearly wanton manhandling of Chekhov does afford powerful flashes of brilliance and even thrilling revelation. Purists will undoubtedly object, and I, personally, continue to savor memories of many another Three Sisters—from the 1989 Stratford production in which Masha’s nihilistic toast was comically rendered as “A short life, but a merry one. God help us!” by luscious Lucy Peacock; to the 1999 Irish Classical Theatre production that opened Buffalo’s Andrews Theatre. I watch and re-watch the video of the Actors Studio production that played on Broadway in 1964 with Geraldine Page as Olga, Kim Stanley as Masha, Sandy Dennis as Irina, and Shelly Winters as Natasha. (I stare at photographs of Katharine Cornell as Masha with jealous yearning).

Nonetheless, there is something exciting about this sprawling and misshapen Three Sisters, populated by astounding talent, including a crew of young actors who are, without a doubt, among the finest up-and-comers in the American theater today.

After all, it is possible that Olga really is displacing all her losses and unfulfilled desires onto Vershinin as he departs. Perhaps Vershinin is having a moment of panic when he realizes the sacrifices he is making as he goes; and that he reacts with a new sense of angry urgency when he recognizes his own weakness. That incongruous chair-swing does provide a metaphor for Irina’s unsettling journey, as it successively highlights her innocence, her entrapment, and finally her aloneness.

Moreover, within individual performances, we find great delights.

Andrey, the brother in this sister play is perfectly cast and played with marvelous clarity and convincing cluelessness by Lucas Dixon, a Texan now entering his third year in the Yale program.

Andrea Syglowski, a Pennsylvania native and Juilliard student, is horribly delectable as Natasha, rendering her increasingly vicious and self-absorbed outbursts with terrifying yet hilarious punch.

Lynn Cohen, whose expressive face will be familiar to audiences from her work in television and film, is affecting and solidly anchored (and anchoring) as the aged servant, Anfisa.

Joel de la Fuente cuts a sculpted and well-tailored figure as philosophical Vershinin, looking crisp and orderly even in a supposed state of dishevelment. He brings meticulousness and intelligibility to his character’s celebrated monologues. This, coupled with his unusual good looks, helps us understand why he catches Masha’s eye—he is decidedly not from this tedious provincial town.

As Dr. Chebutykin, Keith Randolph Smith lends expressive prowess and much needed vocal variety to the production, even when hidden beneath an animal head.

Finally, as responsible and dignified Olga, Miss Benesch is entrusted with much of the heavy lifting. With a graceful stage presence and without visible hesitation or doubt, she throws herself into the performance with full-throttle zeal. These efforts are matched by Miss Gragtmans and Miss Graham, who are similarly required to turn on an emotional dime in order to keep this roller coaster of a show careening about the stage. And into the wings. And in the case of Miss Graham, up into the air.

These efforts are supported by Jim Findlay’s versatile scenery; Olivera Gajic’s eclectic and expressive costumes; Peter Ksander’s lighting; and Daniel Baker’s startling and hard-working sound design.

While this production of Three Sisters feels decidedly unfinished, there are unmistakable sparks of brilliance, and the sort of insight that is only possible through rigorous experimentation. Most importantly, the production provides the Chautauqua audience with an intriguing glimpse into the process of a fascinating director. We may yearn to see the scattered gems sorted, matched, and restrung with greater unity, but to insist upon that would be to deprive ourselves of a foray into the experimental that is, in its own way, powerful and unforgettable.