Despite genuine insights, CTC’s ‘Three Sisters’ mostly overdone


Baron Túzenbach (Charlie Thurston) tries to impress Irína (Charlotte Graham) during the first act of Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of “Three Sisters.” Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

David Shengold | Guest Reviewer

The good news is that Chautauqua Theater Company is staging Anton Chekhov’s 1901 “Three Sisters,” one of the greatest plays ever written, through July 17. Further, good reports can be made of the chosen translation: by the late Slavic academic-turned-actor Paul Schmidt, it renders Chekhov’s then-contemporary idiom (the play is set in a stultifying provincial city in 1900) into plausible, listenable and unstilted American English, with only a few questionable decisions. (For one, the play opens on the imeniny of Irína, the youngest of the titular sister: her “name day,” the feast of the saint for whom she was named. Schmidt chooses to make it her birthday.) Several of the individual performances prove outstanding, and the entire cast certainly manifests a lot of energy and willingness to venture out on interpretive limbs.

However, guest director Brian Mertes’ often showy, self-impressed staging is longer on attitude than on narrative coherence: Many around me in the audience Friday afternoon voiced puzzlement as to the basic storyline, let alone the nuances of meaning inherent in Chekhov’s multi-level text. Certain scenes achieve emotional resonance, and Mertes and his designers furnish some striking images along the way — also, alas, some displays of posturing, clutter and already cliché artifacts of Wooster Group-type productions.

Nearly everything is overdone, sometimes deep into the ground. There is way too much music (some of the folkish stuff was lovely and worked well with the text, but the blasts of heavy metal seemed both portentious and pretentious) and way too many interpolated “numbers” — such as a truly unfortunate and unmotivated moonwalking/mime display lasting minutes by Irína’s suitor Baron Túzenbach, blighting an otherwise engaging and distinctive performance by Charlie Thurston, though the young actor is in the enviable position of being too attractive for the role he’s playing.

It is also disheartening to hear such frequent resorting to “funny voices” — like the worst kind of opera singer acting, with characters affecting SNL-quality French, German and (most bizarrely) “Russian” accents and (worse) reaching on occasion for pat television intonations instead of speaking their lines.

Jim Findlay’s set is quite ingenious in terms of varying the playing space and allowing different perspectives and trajectories; Mertes takes commendable advantage of that. Still, as the performance unfolds, one ticks off a catalogue of iconic and hardly novel post-modern effects, including mirrored sunglasses, mime-like play with bowler hats, glass back walls (the better through which to see two softcore “shower scenes” — perhaps an attempt at rendering a Russian banya, or bath house, though that potential locus of sin interested Dostoevsky much and Chekhov not at all).

In terms of Detritus Chic, we see mattresses used as a crash pit, a summary pile of dirt for the final act’s outdoor setting and plastic dolls desultorily used as infant stand-ins.

Technologically, the production included a live mic into which some of the play’s key speeches were over-earnestly intoned — as if Mertes had found Chekhov’s language at these junctures too unhip to countenance without an ironic aural frame.

At one point during the fire scene in Act Three, we see the frequently put-upon servant Ferapónt (Dave Quay, equally put-upon by the direction but ingratiating) using his Mac laptop. (Are audiences expected to think, “Kewl!” Really?
In 2011?)

An equivalent gratuitous signifier of Hip is the onstage video monitor, distracting and rather poorly used withal. Olivera Gajic’s thoughtfully detailed costumes, however, contribute positively to the production’s visual side.

The notably long (3.5 hour) performance ends with a big, elaborate, unison motion choreographic extravaganza (Jesse Perez is its credited maker, and the steps are fun). One admires that the cast can get through it, especially on matinée days, but the fist-pumping, Michael Flatley-esque tone seems peculiarly out of synch with Chekhov’s despairing finale — however jokily some of it is rendered here — and the dance seems (in its inordinate length) to imagine audiences wildly applauding what they have seen. That was not the case Friday, and — not for the first time — one felt rather embarrassed for some very hard-working actors.

The orphaned Prozorov sisters yearn for their native Moscow as for the lost possibilities of their youth. It is by definition unrecapturable — what Gertrude Stein meant in saying late in life of her native Oakland that “there is no there there.” Irína, 20, traces the sharpest arc from hope to abject despair and also acts (often unwillingly) as a romantic catalyst for the young officers posted in the city.

In my experience, this tricky role usually draws the show’s weakest performance, so it’s a particular pleasure to see lovely Charlotte Graham embody it so truthfully and intelligently. She and Thurston (under Mertes’ direction) have forged an impressive onstage rapport — one can’t say “chemistry,” because Irína admits she admires but doesn’t love the poor (rich) Baron.

In this enactment, the relationship seemed to hold potential, making its thwarting by the jealous, strange Solyóny (a dignified, focused Tyee Tilghman) all the more tragic.

Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch plays Ólga, the eldest sister, and though she does some subtle and convincing work here, both the beginning and ending of her performance (and thus of the play) seem unduly “actressy” — the exhausted Ólga gets an exhibitionistic dance in Act Four that came from and went nowhere.

Másha, the gifted and unhappily married middle sister, emerged rather emotionally opaque in Laura Gragtmans’ reading — which also too often verged on verbal incomprehensibility.

Joel de la Fuente, seeming young for the part, did a capable and well-spoken job as Vershínin, the equally unhappily married colonel with whom she briefly finds happiness. “Three Sisters” usually revolves around Másha; Mertes got better work from, and devoted more interpretive and plastic stage time to, her hapless, pedantic husband Kulygin — a highly stylized and in-your-face but quite brilliant performance by Ted Schneider, conveying both Kulygin’s human suffering and the deep awfulness of living with such a person.

The other Prozorov sibling, Andréy, is excluded from the title; his doomed marriage with a local shrew (Natásha) and his manic gambling are the inexorable engines that drive the sisters out of their paternal home. He can seem a kind of silly also-ran to his sisters, but Mertes’ direction pushes Lucas Dixon into high-decibel, flamboyant, sad goofiness, with Andréy emitting many laughs — Ólga also chuckled incessantly — and tears. Most of the time, this gamble worked.

The most completely realized portrayal onstage is Andrea Syglowski’s Natásha. Stalking the stage like a meaner, pettier Lady Macbeth, she misses not a trick in portraying this monster of sentimentality and voracious selfishness. (One knows the proto-conservationist Chekhov hated anyone who cut down old trees.)

Keith Randolph Smith has a fabulous presence and voice — a Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” just waiting to happen — and aces Dr. Chebutykin’s comic parts. He doesn’t capture sufficiently the old fraud’s effectively murderous nihilism — but again, the direction toward the dénouement tends toward pushing for laughs.

Lynn Cohen’s most interesting scene as the old nanny Anfísa is her last one, in which she seems to have crossed over into contended dotage. Biko Eisen-Martin and Peter Kendall draw Chekhov’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roles, Fedótik and Ródhe, quite well; Mertes explores more than usual their interrelationship with Túzenbach and Irína; and Eisen-Martin and Kendall also handle a lot of the musical duties.

Mertes and his staff seem to have done some substantial dramaturgical work, as several linguistic and sociological details emerged spot-on. However, someone might have ascertained the correct pronunciations of Dobrolyubov (duh-brah-LYOO-buhff), Saratov (sah-RAH-tuff) and the English word “Caucasus.”

First-time “Three Sisters” viewers might find themselves at sea — though probably not bored. Those who know the play well might (like myself) find themselves weighing the production’s genuine insights and strengths against its tendency to posture
and overdo.

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Theatre Journal and Time Out New York among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO, Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He trained and acted at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA and has taught on opera, Russian literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.