Life flies by, jeering at our measly accomplishments, even as it drags on endlessly, hour after weary hour. Love is elusive and taunting. Loneliness is an ever-present scourge, but company is bothersome. Pride is foolish, but its absence is hideous. Life without work is meaningless, but, then, so is work. The pained past has been precursor to a future that never comes.
Welcome to the world of Anton Chekhov.
In a wonderfully acted but oppressively staged production of Three Sisters, Lev Dodin and Maly Drama Theatre, of St. Petersburg, bring us what amounts to a three-and-a quarter-hour deep sigh. In Russian, with English supertitles, the tale of cosmopolitan siblings stuck in the boonies and dreaming of Moscow is, in its performances, a naturalistic tour de force.
This makes sense because what we are experiencing, as part of the Kennedy Center’s Spotlight on Directors series, is high-test Stanislavsky. Dodin studied with Boris Zon, who was a student of the legendary actor and theater teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky directed the 1901 premiere of Three Sisters, in which he played the part of Alexander Vershinin, the army lieutenant colonel who has an affair with the middle of the three sisters, Masha. In short, the provenance of Maly’s rendition of this masterwork is exemplary.
But is the production good? Yes and no.
Stanislavsky emphasized experiential over technical acting, and Maly’s Three Sisters is a notable advertisement for that training, which is now so common that we barely register it. We come to know the three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina; their brother Andrey and his fiancée and later wife, Natasha; Masha’s husband Feodor and her lover Vershinin; and Irina’s suitors Baron Nicolai Tuzenbach and the hotheaded lieutenant Vassili Soleniy, and we immediately feel that we’re in the presence not of characters at all but of people. We are watching not performances but lives.
The dialogue is generally slow-paced, but with bursts of rushed, sometimes flustered, excitement, just as it is among our own family, friends, and tormentors. The actors don’t wear mics, nor do they bellow and over-enunciate for the benefit of the balcony crowd (though some folks up there, if they aren’t relying on the English translation, might have trouble hearing). Characters walk onto the stage, front and center, from the theater’s aisles. Off-stage sound is natural, characters speaking through side and rear doorways. Andrey walks his baby in a stroller through the theater, from one side to the other. And so on.
Elizaveta Boyarskaya is particularly compelling as Irina. Beautiful (she’s a film and TV star as well as a stage actress), her eyes are always perched on a hair-thin boundary between delight and disappointment. When she’s distraught, she projects tragicomic womanly bellows — we feel with her what it is to be trapped in this crappy little town.
Ksenia Rappoport, as Masha, veers between giddy infatuation and crazed claustrophobia, while Irina Tychinina’s Olga is steely, strong, and dignified.
closes April 30, 2017
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Yet strangely, while successfully employing the naturalistic approach in coaching his actors, Dodin abandons it in his staging. Instead of allowing for a significant mix of interior and exterior scenes, he gives us the front of the Prosorov sisters’ house, placing most of the action outside of it. And at two key junctures Dodin moves that house facade, designed by Alexander Borovsky, squarely toward us, minimizing the actors’ elbow room.
The intent is clear: As circumstances crush the sisters’ dreams, their walls literally close in on them, and on us. Dodin often places his actors in static positions, angled toward if not facing the audience instead of one another. He also has the players sitting within, or framed behind, the window openings. With Damir Ismagilov’s careful lighting, this offers some moody portraits, and it also serves to pointedly isolate the characters in accordance with their psyches. But it also sometimes gives the evening an out-of-place almost Beckett-like vibe. Perhaps longing for Moscow is somewhat akin to waiting for Godot, but Dodin’s stylistic gamesmanship ill-serves him.
Beyond the overall conceptual problem, his tactics occasionally confuse in more prosaic ways. For instance, at one point, Irina tells Capt. Soleniy that he’s not welcome in her house. The thing is, when she does so, he’s already in the house and she’s outside of it. Perhaps she’s on a front porch and he came in through a side door or something, but it’s murky.
More important, that central metaphor of the moving wall doesn’t, if you think about it, make symbolic sense. For if the characters are outside of the house and the front of the house is moving toward them — and us — then in fact the house is growing. The walls are not closing in on the characters, they are expanding away from them. (Now if the entire action took place within an interior, the walls hemming us in similarly, that would be a different story, although it would have the same anti-naturalistic problems and it would be distracting.)
Now isn’t all this a bit literal-minded? you ask. No. If an actually moving wall is the centerpiece of a production’s visualization, then it needs to have some dramaturgical logic.
The good news — and this won’t surprise opera buffs — is that the supertitles are far less irritating than they sound, unless you’re in a front row, in which case you’ll be craning your neck like mad and should make a chiropractor appointment for the morning after. Better yet — as did much of Wednesday’s audience — speak Russian.
Three Sisters . Play by Anton Chekhov; performed by Maly Drama Theatre; directed by Lev Dodin; designed by Alexander Borovsky; lighting designed by Damir Ismagilov; with Alexander Bilovskky, Ekaterina Kleopina, Irina Tychinina, Ksenia Rappoport, Elizaveta Boyarskaya, Sergey Vlasov, Igor Chernevich, Oleg Ryazanzev, Stanislav Nikolskiy, Sergey Kuryshev, Artur Kozin, Evgeny Serzin, Alexander Koshkarev, Natalia Sokolova, Elena Solomonova, and Sergey Ivanov. Produced by Maly Drama Theatre . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.