Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer
Brian Mertes, well-known theater and television director, looks at things differently than traditional directors. This might be evident to audience members who come to see the Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2011 Season production of “Three Sisters” that Mertes is directing.
The play, which takes place in a provincial town in Russia, follows the search for meaning and happiness in life by three sisters — Irina, Olga and Masha — as they long to go back to their hometown of Moscow.
While this is Mertes’ first time directing a CTC production, it’s not his first time directing a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” In fact, this is Mertes’ third time directing the play.
General Manager Robert Chelimsky said CTC has been looking for the right opportunity for some time to work with Mertes and felt that “Three Sisters” would be the right fit.
“He is particularly known for his work with Chekhov, so going from there, this was a fairly natural piece to land on,” Chelimsky said. “His approach is different; this is not going to be your father’s ‘Three Sisters.’”
Mertes’ “different approach” to the play includes integrating music and movement into the production. He also said he is replacing some of the cultural references in the play to address items that are relevant in today’s culture.
“I like to use something that we can relate to,” Mertes said. “It becomes less about an accurate representation of Victorian-period, 1904 Russia and becomes more of a refraction.”
Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch said she knew Mertes was the right fit to direct a CTC production of a Chekhov play after seeing him direct a three-part production of “The Greeks” at The Juilliard School. It wasn’t only the production that caught her eye, however; it was the work that Mertes was able to pull from the students he was directing.
“I was so impressed by them, not only how exciting, visceral and moving they were, but also because of the work I saw him get out of students that I had watched go through Juilliard for four years and never do the kind of work that he was able evoke out of them,” she said. “That’s someone I wanted to get to Chautauqua.”
Benesch said she wanted to bring Mertes here so that actors at CTC could experience working under his direction for a full production.
“Some of the very best actors I know in the business have had the opportunity to work with him, and every single one of them that I have talked to has said that it was one of the most transformational experiences they’ve ever had as an actor,” Benesch said. “He’s exploding our expectations.”
While most directors might be focused on getting things perfect, Mertes said that isn’t something he is particularly interested in for this production. He said he worries more about having rehearsals where actors have the opportunity to learn and try anything.
“It’s a very free and open rehearsal where basically I say yes to almost everything,” Mertes said. “We try so many things. Things that don’t make sense, things that do make sense, things that are messy, things that fail. People are constantly falling flat on their faces beautifully — just like these characters.”
Mertes’ work with Chekhov now includes all of Chekhov’s plays, including two former productions of “Three Sisters” in 2004. The first production, Mertes directed at his home on Lake Lucille in New York. The second production took place immediately following the first at a Yale University theater in New Haven, Conn. This second production was difficult for Mertes, as he was used to directing the play at his home.
“I was genuinely confused,” Mertes said. “I was like, ‘Where’s my lake? Where’s my old stone house? Where are my trees? Oh my God, I’m in a theater. What am I going to do?’”
After directing the play twice, Mertes said he has found a way to bring what he formerly learned to CTC’s production.
“This is bringing a lot of what I’ve learned from doing all of (Chekhov’s) plays, bringing some of the ideas I had developed in the theater in New Haven and some of the ideas that I found at the house at Lake Lucille and bringing them all together,” he said
While the consensus on Mertes’ work won’t be seen until opening night of “Three Sisters,” Mertes said he feels the production will be an enjoyable experience for those attending.
“I think they will be genuinely confused and delightfully entertained,” Mertes said. “That’s my goal.”