The High/Low Country
Bitching, Whining, Cheating, Nagging, American Style
Sometime in the opening act of The Three Sisters, the whole crowd of small-town women and soldiers pose for a photo. They joke and laugh as the photographer gets the box ready and aims for the shoot. When he tells them heís ready, they freeze into glassy-eyed, unsmiling, self-consciously posed statues.
Itís the telling moment in the Center Stageís rendition of this Chekhov classic: Life moves on slowly, with brief freeze-ups, as characters suddenly stop and wonder if, 10 or 200 years from now, theyíll be looked at as anonymous, sober-faced puppets of their era. Reality is a drug in itself here--somehow terror passes and life goes on, and the deaths, heartbreaks, and cruelty that intrude are pit stops, not black holes.
The more you watch Chekhov, the more difficult it appears to update it. Despite all the flaws of 1900 Russia, thereís a basic level of decency--or, as Baron Tuzenbach (Matt Sullivan) puts it, "today there are no torture chambers, executions, or invasions!" That caused a brief, uncomfortable chuckle to pass through the audience. The age Chekhov dramatizes is a brief calm before the storm, when educated provincial landowners were bored enough and inquisitive enough to question whether they had a reason for existing to begin with. In the era of 24-hour divertissement, thatís a difficult atmosphere to re-create.
The three hapless Prozorov sisters--Masha (Christine Marie Brown), Irina (Mahira Kakkar), and Olga (Stacy Ross)--are certainly in dire straits. Theyíre being gradually eased out of their dead fatherís estate by Natasha (Kristin Fiorella), the wife of their brother Andrey (Tony Ward). They donít have much to hang on to, and their dream of returning to Moscow, after 11 years in the provinces, is fading fast.
For the most part, Center Stageís The Three Sisters is a competent take on a classic that really gives the reins to the cast. Instead of ripping their hearts out, actors weave and wind their way through a small-town world where even tragedy is somewhat detached. The town gets engulfed by fire, a lover gets killed in a duel, women cheat on their husbands (and vice versa), but the melodrama is absorbed by the landscapeís distant, isolated boredom.
Robert Israelís theater-in-the round set captures that atmosphere quite well in the small Head Theater. When the play opens--as the sisters are listlessly discoursing on their respective gripes--the audience is caged in the house with them. The interior of this large, cookie-cutter mansion seems bland enough, but as the show progresses, leaning doorways and out-of-whack proportions subtly announce themselves.
Itís not always clear what director Irene Lewis had in mind, though. Some fiddling is evident, but with mixed results. Paul Schmidtís contemporary translation smoothes Chekhov to the ear with some American English vernacular, but at points it descends into silliness, as characters shift into Southern dialect and, inexplicably, Andrey Prozorovís baby gets tagged "Skippy." One of the smaller characters, the camera-wielding Fedotik (Willy Conley), communicates in, presumably, sign language, as his cohort Rohde (Andy Paterson) interprets. The inclusion of a signed performance in the talky Chekhov is a challenge worth taking up, but it isnít quite resolved. The occasional musical interludes add Russian flavor, but that seems to work against the attempts to Americanize the dialogue. Autumn leaves dropping from the ceiling in the final act add a decorative, almost breathtaking element, but with the extended dance scene, it feels a little too cinematic.
For the most part, though, this production is left to the actors, and this cast supplies the cool professionalism that Chekhov requires. Chekhovís soliloquies are anything but poetic--theyíre repetitive and long-winded--but Sisters reaches symphonic heights using the voices of a dozen or so characters who have nothing to do but complain about their hopelessness. Itís up to the actors to give that constant whining and moaning an engaging life.
In an excellent performance, David Adkins gives this production a burst of controlled energy as the fortysomething colonel Vershinin. Adkins adds a slight dose of manic intensity to this lovelorn colonel--with a little tweaking and updating, his Vershinin could be a cult figure or motivational speaker. Even when he bares his heart to Masha, you remain a little uneasy. He is a pathological talker who is captivated by the sound of his own voice. With all due respect, itís possible to understand why he drives his wife to attempted suicide.
Christine Marie Brown avoids the trap of transforming Masha into a love-struck young woman. The sparks fly, but her skeptical lassitude is probably her most attractive aspect. While her husband pleads for her heart, she doesnít hate the guy; sheís just unsure whether he exists. As her husband, the irrepressible Kulygin, Joe Hickey offers an engaging, perky pathos. He tries desperately to assure Masha that he does exist, and that heís actually in love with her. For the most part Kulyginís efforts are flamboyantly idiotic, but even as Hickey keeps the laughs coming, he injects a little nobility into his characterís useless mission.
As Natasha, Kristin Fiorella manages the transition from an insecure fiancťe to the manipulative, shrill housewife. She doesnít really have the controlling, dominating quality that some actresses give to the role; she instead wears her husband and sisters-in-law down with a constant cascade of nagging and bitching.
The list could go on, but space is limited. Out in the provinces, even duels get boring. In this understated, good-humored production, the characters stay engaging and engaged. Thatís a credit to the cast, who, like the characters in Fedotikís photos, refuse to let the freeze frames take over.
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