At 3 SISTERS we laughed, we learned

An exuberant and telling production of Chekhov by the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

Irina is happily swinging to and fro just inside the entrance to the Studio Theater at Reed College for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s version of “The Three Sisters.” She’s wearing a white party dress—it’s her birthday after all—and she’s so close to us as we file in that one of our number offers to give her a push. She accepts with joy.

We don’t pause in that “garden” space. We continue through to the great drawing room where Act One will take place. A long table is set up at one end for the cast/guests, and we audience/guests pick out seats around little tables scattered throughout the rest of the room. Sparkling pear juice is poured for us. We drink.

The set awaits the action/Owen Carey

The set awaits the action/Owen Carey

Actors filter into the space. The play begins.

Olga: Father died exactly a year ago, on the dot, May fifth, on your birthday, Irina. It was very cold that day, it snowed. I thought I wouldn’t survive it; you fainted and lay there as if you were the dead one. And now, after a year we can barely remember; you’re wearing white again, and your face is shining…*

So, yes, just like Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” But translator/director Stepan Simek, PETE, and the cast have some surprises in store. This isn’t going to be the melancholy demise of a once-proud provincial family that we might have expected since the great Russian director Stanislavski put his stamp on Chekhov’s play at the Moscow Art Theater back at the turn of the 20th century. The lines are mostly the same, the plot, the characters.
But the wonderful first act of this production might do for you what it did for me: Turn my thinking about “The Three Sisters” upside down in the most unexpected, telling, clever, and hilarious ways.

Maybe that’s not how you think you want your Chekhov? I think this Act One will convince you otherwise.

****

Where were we? Ah yes, we’d just finished off our beverages.

The actors start to speak. Some are at that big table at the end of the room, some are in the corridor outlined by rugs between the little tables where the audience is sitting, others are tucked into between those tables. Their exchanges are swift in and around and among the audience. It’s like a dizzying tracking shot in film, and Robert Altman-esque, a new exchanges seem to start before the old one is quite finished. We swivel around the space, glancing at the other audience members, past actors who are NOT speaking, before landing upon those who are. Those actors might be across the room, a mid-range “shot” or they might be right next to you for a close-up, hovering inches away. Well, maybe a foot or two.

Sometimes they address lines of exposition, like Olga’s above, directly toward us, which would have broken the fourth wall separating audience and cast in a typical proscenium stage version, if hadn’t already been demolished. It’s actually pre-party chatter (the celebration is later that night), and it’s funny, though sometimes in a bitter way. I’m thinking of the acidic way Masha says, “Who cares?”, when someone says it’s Irina’s birthday, before finishing her sentence more benignly. Beneath the jollity, there’s something else going on—the most corrosive unhappiness imaginable.

At it’s peak in this Act, as we assimilate the story and the characters, assess their states of mind, the actors throw us off the standard narrative highway we drive without paying much attention. So, Olga can seem to be the sweet center of things one minute, just a touch of hysteria to tip off her unhappiness, and then she’s hollering for a servant like a muleskinner.** She’s not all THAT fragile after all!

PETE's "The Three Sisters" includes a birthday toast by Cristi Miles (standing on the table) to Amber Whitehall (standing center)/Owen Carey

PETE’s “The Three Sisters” includes a birthday toast by Cristi Miles (standing on the table) to Amber Whitehall (standing center)/Owen Carey

The various plots unfold. Unhappily married Masha meets her lover-to-be, the new colonel of the army detachment assigned to the town, Vershenin. The Baron expresses his ardor for Irina while a vicious rival, Solyony, stalks her from across the room. Andrey and Natasha court each other. And though both Olga and Irina seem superficially happy, all they can talk about is how they’ll all finally be at peace and contented in Moscow, where dreamy men await them and a mythical professorship awaits the scholarly Andrey. Masha? Well, maybe she can visit in the summer?

It all rushes past us, unsettling our expectations minute by minute. The deep forward lean of the Baron. The dark angry eyes of Masha. The fluttery sing-song of Irina. The quacking of Solyony. Yes, actual quacking. It fits. I was laughing in my seat through all of this as I had never laughed at Chekhov before. I quite enjoyed my sparkling pear juice.

****

Chekhov and his director Stanislavski famously disagreed about Chekhov’s work, particularly his last play “The Cherry Orchard.” Here’s biographer/critic V.S. Pritchett:

Stanislavski and [playwright and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, Vladimir] Nemirovich-Danchenko sent him long and enthusiastic telegrams. There was only one jarring note: Stanislavski had called the play “a truly great tragedy.” Tartly, and fearing Stanislavski’s possessiveness, Chekhov replied that it was not even a drama—”it is a farce.”***

Stanislavski’s somber approach won, though even he, at the end of his life, started thinking differently about Chekhov. Biographer Jean Benedetti quotes him: “After all we have lived through, it is impossible to weep over the fact that an officer is going and leaving his lady behind.” Which is what happens at the end of “The Three Sisters” (among others things).

Now, I don’t have an opinion about what the “right” way to do Chekhov or “The Three Sisters” really is. I’ve seen successful productions that were melancholy and touching, Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2009 “The Three Sisters” with a new translation by Tracy Letts, for example. Chekhov famously avoided explaining what he had written, and I doubt that he really MEANT that “The Cherry Orchard” should be played as farce. (If I were Stanislavski maybe I would have staged it that way in spite!)

Here’s Chekhov short story-writing prescription, written to his brother in 1886 (“The Three Sisters” was first staged in 1901). I think it describes his plays pretty well.

1) Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature.
2) total objectivity.
3) truthful descriptions of persons and objects.
4) extreme brevity.
5) audacity and originality: avoid the stereotype.
6) compassion.****

Again, he’s talking about short stories. “The Three Sisters” isn’t short, and we could debate what he means by “total objectivity” (which we won’t!), but maybe we understand it as a practical matter: He doesn’t want sentimental claptrap. What I like about PETE’s production is how it, mostly, emphasizes these points. When it doesn’t, it’s not quite so good, and maybe we’ll talk about that a little later.

****

I think I’m now at Act Two (technically, it’s Act Three): The audience leaves the party room for a 15-minute intermission. At its conclusion we are led down a hallway lined with portraits of 19th century military men (I think) and into the theater again. Our chairs form a square, one row deep, around a playing area, a “bedroom,” the walls of which are a white mesh scrim.

Rebecca Lingafelter as the oldest sister Olga in "The Three Sisters"/Owen Carey

Rebecca Lingafelter as the oldest sister Olga in “The Three Sisters”/Owen Carey

A fire has burned down a section of the city, and people are coming in and out of the room, Olga and Irina’s room (they’ve been kicked out by Andrey’s wife Natasha to make room for their children—almost three years have passed since Act One), first to fetch blankets, then to rest, and finally to explore their various reasons for anger bitterness, which are legion. At first the bedroom functions as a “safe room,” but it quickly becomes apparent that with velociraptors like Natasha snapping about, no room in the house is truly safe. Certainly not for the nanny: the eyes in the front of Natasha’s head have her measured to be tonight’s prey.

Olga attempts to deflect Natasha with a snarl of her own and then an explanation, but she encounters those horrible teeth (OK, this is just a metaphor!) of Natasha’s, her fury, her will to dominate. And as the Act progresses we see how badly things have gone, how out of hand Andrey’s gambling has gotten, how he’s been cuckolded by Natasha with his boss at the county council, how ill-equipped anyone is to deal with the fire, Natasha, their collapsed dreams.

Unlike Act One (and Two) in the drawing room, the audience is separated from the action by the scrim, even though we are only a very few feet away from the edge of it, astonishingly close, actually, to the heat generated in that crucible. Maybe the inferno in the town could be projected a bit more, but the Act is very effective, focused, savage.

****

The set design and the translation, which is in the current vernacular, with our “geezers” and “humongous”-es, are “audacious and original,” as Chekhov suggested. Or is it demanded, at least of himself? But so is the acting. I talked a little about PETE’s experimental approach to acting, codified by Tina Landau and Anne Bogart in “The Viewpoints Book,” a couple of weeks ago. One way to think of the actor training, ensemble building and composition creation in Viewpoints is as an alternative to the Stanislavski Method. Yes, him again.

The Method is a “naturalistic” approach to acting. Viewpoints, which was inspired by the Judson Church dance experiments of the 1960s and ‘70s, is more presentational, a more theatrical and expressionistic way of approaching acting. The quiet, somber, sad “Three Sisters” productions are Method-based. This one is far more raucous, unnatural at its best, expressive and rich with meaning, and moment-by-moment unpredictable. I’m thinking of Solyony’s quacking again.

Which is actually actor Chris Murray’s quacking, probably: Viewpoints puts the onus of each actor’s performance choices on the actor and the group. Each second can be interpreted in a variety of ways, with syllables or movements held over time, repeated, cut short, or manipulated in other ways. Bogart and Landau’s book is full of ideas and exercises to apply them.

The four core PETE actors have been using these exercises for a long time together, and their performances here are delightfully different. Amber Whitehall as the youngest sister Irina can dissemble in front of our eyes and hit ethereal places that would be difficult for a Method actor to locate…and any case would seem out of place unless everyone else was going for similar heights. I’ve already suggested how varied Rebecca Lingafelter’s approach to Olga is. Cristi Miles as Masha balances her ferocity with a shimmering calm in her romantic scenes with her lover, Vershinin, played by Michael O’Connell. And Jacob Coleman as the Baron is persistent in his courtship of Irina and then airily philosophical about…the importance of work, good hard work, which oddly is also a theme of Irina’s, nevermind that she finds real work oppressive and boring. For the Baron, of course, work means owning a brick factory.

Michael O'Connell enters the circle of "The Three Sisters," interesting Cristi Miles, behind him, greatly./Owen Carey

Michael O’Connell enters the circle of “The Three Sisters,” interesting Cristi Miles, behind him, greatly./Owen Carey

We never identify with any of these characters, at least I didn’t. I don’t think we are intended to feel sorry for them, exactly, or suffer alongside them. We are “objective.” We should laugh at their jokes and at their condition, which they bring on themselves, mostly. So, yes, they are comic, but before I took them all the way to grotesque, I’d check #6 above: “compassion.” And also the “truthful descriptions” rule. I thought Michael Chambers perfectly walked that border as the servant Ferapont; and Kathleen Worley’s nanny was dear, funny and interesting to watch without stooping either for laughs or sympathy. Nice.

This is a “mixed cast,” meaning that most of the cast are non-PETE actors. When they try to be sympathetic instead of creatively drawn, they don’t work as well in this production. Isaac Lamb’s Andrey, for example, strikes me as too warm and cuddly at first and then too pathetic—at the expense of finding truly original ideas about this weak character he plays. In another production his approach would be just fine and maybe better than fine, but not with Jahnavi Caldwell-Green breathing fire around him as Natasha. And I wanted John San Nicolas, another fine actor in the cast, to find something to play beyond passive acceptance as the husband Masha cheats on with Vershinin.

Of course, I have absolutely no idea how to do these roles in a more compelling way, I just think that the field is open to the actors to push further. And I bring it up to note the heterodoxy of the acting styles, which is a little confusing.

****

My only other reservation about this production—which, yes, I think is generally delicious, a technical term that means “I’d gladly go see it again”—is that Act Three doesn’t have the inventiveness of the first two. It’s a break-the-tents, denouement sort of scene, typical for Chekhov, and I find it amusing that he puts the duel in that section, off-stage, without serious consequences, at least to the Sisters in question. Well, I suppose Irina is spared a loveless marriage?

For that scene, the audience is situated around the action again, but this time the playing area is the “garden,” much larger. We are five year since Act One, now, the detachment of soldiers is headed out of town, Masha is heartbroken because Vershinin is among them. Irina and Olga, who is doing a job she declared she hated in Act One, are never going to make it to Moscow.

It ends in a tableaux:

Olga: The music is so happy, so full of life, and I want to live! Oh my God! Time will pass, and we’ll be gone forever, they’ll forget us, they’ll forget our faces, our voices, how many we were, but our suffering will turn into joy for people who will live after us, peace and happiness will come to earth, and they will have good things to say about us, and they’ll bless those of us who live now. Oh my dear sisters, our lives are not over yet. We will live! The music is so happy, so full of joy, and it seems that just a little bit longer, and we’ll find out why we live, why we suffer… If only one knew, if only one knew!

They play this scene “straight.” And I’d say this is wrong, based on the command against stereotypes, but maybe that one is countermanded by the law of compassion in this case?

****

The Studio Theater in the new Reed Performing Arts Building is a perfect location for this production. Technically “gifted” and almost icily cool, with high ceilings and a generous, open playing area, the place practically demands experiments of this sort.

So does the city. This particular one was a full year in the making, and that’s not counting Simek’s translation time. It was incredibly generous: The audience numbered only around 35; the cast, 14. The design team—Peter Ksander (sets), Mark Valadez (sound),
Miranda K Hardy (lights), and Jenny Ampersand (costumes)—did extraordinary work. So great a concentration of resources for such a good purpose. Simek’s conception and direction and PETE’s approach, well, as I said, they made me re-think the play, Chekhov, and the possibilities of a production of classic work in general.

We haven’t seen much Bogart-influenced work in Portland, and perhaps that’s why PETE’s work has seemed so fresh and vital through its three full-scale productions. It’s somewhat paradoxical that the intricate exercises of the Viewpoints approach, carefully worked out and clearly the product of close analysis of performance elements and possibilities, generates creative work of this order, this unexpected moment by moment. But it does. And if you’re like me, you’re thirsty for more.

PETE’s “The Three Sisters” continues at Diver Studio in the Performing Arts Building at Reed College through August 17. Audience numbers are limited. Tickets are $20-$25, with discounts for working artists, students, and seniors.

* I’m quoting from the initial version of Simek’s script, which has changed some during rehearsals.

** Although I’ve actually seen real mules pulling real wagons in real life as a boy in Clay, Kentucky, I confess I’m using the expression rather abstractly.

*** in VS Pritchett, “Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free,” pp 220-221.

**** from VS Pritchett, “The Myth Makers: European and Latin American Writers,” pp. 47-48.

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