An Insightful Staging of Chekhov's VisionBy Michael McGregor
May 11, 2009
In the four major plays he left us, Anton Chekhov didn't invite us into just one main character's life or one small story, as most playwrights do, but into an all-encompassing world in which every person -- from a baron to a servant -- is both significant and ridiculous, capable of momentary insight and damning illusion.
"Chekhov is not about story and not about plot," says Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose commissioned adaptation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" opened at Artists Repertory Theatre on Friday night. "He takes a panoramic vision of human experience and keeps moving the focus around."
To do Chekhov right, you need a uniformly stellar cast and a director who knows how to manage it, keeping egos in check while drawing moments of splendor from every actor. Done well, Chekhov -- and especially "Three Sisters" -- is a string of pearls we watch turn ivory with age, darkening into the timeworn beauty that is life.
Director Jon Kretzu's staging of Letts' lucid renewal of Chekhov's world is exactly that. From casting to tempo to costuming and set, this production gleams and deepens over its three hours, taking us from sunlight into candlelight and shadows, where Chekhov's cruelly candid yet compassionate vision of humanity rests.
To his great credit, Letts hasn't tried to make his script stand out but rather to erase the misplaced reverence of most Chekhov translations. The effect reveals the colors and original intent beneath, including Chekhov's underappreciated humor.
On a simple octagonal platform ringed by potted flowers with a bower of birch trees behind it, Andrea Frankle, Luisa Sermol and Amaya Villazan do more than shrewdly animate and differentiate the title sisters, for whom a move to Moscow symbolizes the hoped-for return to a more genteel and happier life. Aided only by Sarah Gahagan's decorous re-creations of period dress and Jeff Forbes' suggestive lighting shifts, they bring to life the whole doomed estate and provincial town in which the sisters feel marooned.
Frankle disappears so completely into the dutiful and unwed oldest sister, Olga, it would be easy to overlook her subtle, brilliant performance, especially beside Sermol's passionate portrayal of the brooding middle sister, Masha, and Villazan's convincing swings between effervescence and wearied petulance as the youngest, Irina.
The compromise and regret the sisters come to is revealed most clearly in Masha's blind flirtation with the battery commander Vershinin (Patrick Dizney) and her disdain for her husband, Kulygin, a toady schoolteacher she once thought the cleverest of men (played with a delightful mix of misplaced haughtiness and sniveling ingratiation by Michael Mendelson). But it is Irina's descent over time that drives the universal dagger home.
The part of Chekhov's genius Kretzu understands the best is his use of an ensemble to add shadings to universal truths: the sisters' dissipated brother, Andrey (Todd Van Voris), and his up-from-nothing, queen-bee wife, Natasha (Marjorie Tatum in a marvelously imperious performance); the talented but aimless baron Tusenbach (David Folsom) and his odd, hotheaded friend Solyony (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin); two servants (Kenneth Springs and Vana O'Brien); two soldiers (Schuyler Schmid and Tom Walton); and a cynical old doctor (Ted Schulz).
In the end, in Chekhov's world, even the dream is a threadbare illusion masking a waning determination to persevere in search of meaning.