nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 16, 2005
Arthur Adair's production of Three Sisters is a masterpiece. I can't remember when I've enjoyed, and understood, one of Chekhov's works so well. I urge you to see it if you can.
Adair reveals this hundred-year-old play to be about, among many many other things, time. The program's "Evening Breakdown" gives us our first clue to the ways that Adair—who is adaptor, director, and designer of this intimately epic/epically intimate nearly-four-hour rendition of Chekhov's play—is approaching the work: Act II, for example, takes place "a year or two later" at "8:07pm." What we are to appreciate from this apparent flippancy is the truism that life happens in tiny minutes, all of which seem enormously important while we're living within them, but few of which ultimately matter in the big scheme of things. Characters in this play ponder posterity and the future and what it all means on a pretty regular basis; and at the same time, they squander opportunities to do, well, pretty much anything that might yield some kind of meaning. Happiness and satisfactions shift among the members of the extended Prozorov Family in a fashion that might be called destiny or might be called fair but would most defensibly be called merely random. The exquisite glory of our humanity feels, thus, stolen, and to be treasured.
Adair thanks us in his director's note for our "three hours" (nearly four, actually). "Like life," he continues, "it [the play] will be over before you know it, and then...well...who's to say...maybe you'll be better off." The kneejerk reaction—four hours!!—is wrongheaded, even in this age of instant absolutely everything. Adair's right, and his wisdom infuses and informs his production profoundly. Every second of this show is as essential as every second that makes each of our own lives what they finally turn out to be—even the boring ones, even the disturbing ones, even the ones that don't make sense.
Three Sisters depicts four moments in the lives of its eponymous characters and a dozen or so people who surround them. Daughters of a once-wealthy and prominent general, Olga (the eldest, a schoolteacher), Masha (in the middle, married to a limited and stuffy pedagogue named Kulygin), and Irina (the youngest, yearning to work when we first meet her, and then unhappily employed at the post office, the town council, and eventually a distant school) are haughtily annoyed and perpetually bored by the provincial Russian town where destiny has placed them. They long to go back to Moscow; eventually they will understand that they never will. They live in a large house with their brother, Andrei, a promising academic who will fall prey to drink and gambling. Andrei is infatuated with a coarse local girl named Natasha; they will marry, and then she will give birth to children, gradually take over the running of the household from Olga, and indulge in an affair that everyone (except perhaps Andrei) knows about. An army officer named Vershinin, who knew the three sisters when they lived in Moscow, turns up, and after a while Masha and he will fall in love; she'll be rapturously happy for a time, until Vershinin and the rest of the soldiers leave town. Irina will be pursued by a variety of young men, including the sullen and enigmatic Solyony and the restless, unfulfilled Baron Tuzenbach. A boarder in the sisters' home, Dr. Chebutykin, who once loved their now-dead mother, will lose a patient and retreat into drink and existential despair. The girls' old nanny, Anfisa, fusses and frets and does what she has to, albeit at a slower pace than before, and finds a reward that perhaps no one else in the play can, in simple retirement, enjoying solitude and—the one thing she never had that everyone else always seemed to have—time on her hands.
Adair spins out the stories, full of false starts and tangents and detours—who are those two guys, Fedotik and Rode; where did they come from?—in three different locations in and around La MaMa. The first two acts happen in the First Floor Theatre, where the fourth wall has literally been removed—the stage is transformed into the Prozorov's spacious living room, with audience seated around three sides of it; the dining room is nestled on the risers where the audience would normally be sitting, and a flight of stairs leads to an unseen second floor. The ambience of this set is spectacular: the arrangement lets us see the characters behave in ways that a proscenium wouldn't allow, and in particular permits Adair to stage simultaneous bits of action and leave it to us to choose our focus. For example, there are several fairly famous passages in both Acts I and II in which Vershinin and Tuzenbach opine rather relentlessly about mankind's future. These speeches are typically made to feel central, as if Chekhov wants us to weigh their relative merits and decide. But here they're just background noise as all kinds of interesting bits of life are played out elsewhere in the two rooms—I hardly listened at all. I wonder if that's not closer to what the playwright intended.
The third act, set in the upstairs bedroom shared by Olga and Irina, is staged claustrophobically in the lobby of the Annex Theatre, a couple of doors down the block. The final act, laid outside the Prozorov home, is performed in the garden behind La MaMa, lit only by some tiny fluorescents and whatever ambient light the sky and the city can provide. I missed the lavish detail of the dining room/living room set; but ending the play outdoors is an inspired, and inspiring, touch. Adair has the three sisters physically separate for the play's final moments—an unusual, observant notion, by the way—and I found myself, as Olga wondered for the umpteenth time what it all means, gazing up into the heavens.
The fifteen-member cast is quite wonderful. Michele Cuomo (Olga), Liza Bryn (Masha), and Alana DiMaria (Irina) are fine as the title characters, making us see much of the complexity of each of their personalities and feeling most believably like siblings. My favorite performances are in the smaller roles, however: Caesar Del Trecco's genuinely tortured Chebutykin, Jason Grechanik's palpably lonely Solyony, Wendy Callard-Booz's determinedly feisty and somehow lovable Anfisa. Joe McGee makes Ferapont, the old deaf servant of Natasha's never-seen lover, practically emblematic of the play's tragicomic spirit—there's a scene in which Ferapont has brought some papers for Andrei to sign; Andrei, stewing over his own problems, keeps him waiting while he drones on about his problems. Ferapont reminds him that he can't really hear him, and Andrei responds that he wouldn't be talking to him if he could. McGee's silent eloquence here is hilarious and heartbreaking.
Other collaborators—artists, musicians, and so on—have abetted Adair in his gargantuan efforts here, in typical La MaMa fashion. Kudos to all involved.
Near the end of Three Sisters' second act, Anfisa turns up to announce the arrival of a troupe of clowns who were scheduled to entertain at a party that has since been called off. Irina, alone in the living room, bids her to send them away. "Apologize to them," she says. "Everyone's gone." Now that's an image to cherish: the notion of apologizing to clowns because we don't have time to let them amuse us.
There's a lesson in there somewhere. Step one: pass four hours at La MaMa this week with these Three Sisters. You don't have time not to.