by Anton Chekov,
Translation by Paul Schmidt
Adapted & Directed by Krystian Lupa
American Repertory Theatre at Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle St. Harvard Sq. / (617) 547 - 8300
Through Jan. 1

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Of all Anton Chekov's masterpieces "The Three Sisters" is probably the least produced in this country. "The Seagull" and "The Cherry Orchard" speak more easily to an American understanding of pre-revolutionary Russia, while "Uncle Vanya" makes its comedic points more universally. But the social hierarchy which forms the underpinnings of provincial society is difficult to fathom, even without the traditions of the Moscow Art Theatre which turned the author's dark comedy and social satire into a psychological exploration of longing. Krystian Lupa's adaptation, which the A.R.T has the grace to recognize in print for a change, carries this tradition to an extreme, effectively stifling most of the humor in the script. Indeed, during the show's tedious running time of 3 1/2 hours--fortunately with intermission-- there were as many chuckles reacting to references about how boring life was as to potentially comic situations.

What's on the Loeb stage, which some reviewers found enlightening, are scene studies more appropriate for the rehearsal studio. Actors normally incorporate insights they've gained from such exercises into something resembling a realistic performance. Here we get a barrage of dumbshow behavior, eccentric overlapping staging, and emotional slowmotion, none of which really do much for Chekov's vision of a society wasteful of human potential. The director's habit of drumming along with rehearsal scenes has even been used as part of Jacek Ostaszewski's original score, as if the cast can't be trusted to stick to Lupa's vision of the play as moving from realism to some sort of inner landscape inhabited by these characters.

The cast for this effort is quite skillful and after an unprecedented 10 week rehearsal period ready to perform, even act when they get the chance. The title characters, Olga, Masha, and Irina--the program doesn't give patronymics or married names--are played respectively by Kelly McAndrews, Molly Ward, and Sarah Grace Wilson; all new to the ART, all with respectable credits. Each has her moments, but their performances haven't real spines. The actresses may know what drives their characters, but the extra hour of pauses added to the text tends to blur such distinctions. Their husbands' , Chebutykin, a doctor married to Olga, played by Thomas Derrah and Kulygin, the headmaster married to Masha played by Will LeBow , both ART veterans, are easier to comprehend. While Tony award-winner Frank Wood has received the most pre-show publicity, his Vershinin, Masha's married heart-throb, suffers from the same excessive internalization. The same is true to a lesser extent of Jeff Biehl's Baron Tuzenbach, Irina's potential fiance. He doesn't have much chance to play the comedy inherent in the part, but there's something amiable there.

The confusion of motives becomes even greater when Sean Dugan, a former ART juvenile, shows up as the brother, Andre. Dugan uses his talent for seeming demented, which stood him well on "Law & Order", to create completely unsympathetic sibling, whose marriage to Julienne Hanzelka Kim's lowclass Natasha seems like just deserts. There's also Solyony, the officer who duels with Tuzenbach, played by Chris McKinney, who seems to consider himself a rival for Irina with little or no motivation. There are only two servants evident. Veteran community theatre actress Mikki Lipsey, who scored a triumph as Mag in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" recently ,plays to old nurse Anfisa, while the ART's senior actor, Jeremy Geidt is Ferapont, an equally ancient footman. Each gives a performance close to what the author intended, sympathetic but potentially comic.

The set, designed by the director is square in the current European fashion, and in the first half includes a transparent wall separating the dining room from the drawing room. After the intermission, two hours on, the bedrooms are set midstage, as the production gets even more abstract. This clutter is eventually struck, leaving a vast open space which seems to be neither inside or outside the house. By this point, the part of audience who came back from intermission, is eager for the show to end. Costumes designed by Piotr Skiba mix '20s and 30's styles on the women with uniforms on most of the men. The result is not especially timeless. Scott Zielinski, who's last show for the ART was "Dido" provides contemporary wash lighting while house sound designer David Remedios tries to keep the score in balance with what's happening onstage. All-in-all, another ART exercise in the international style.

There's a great deal of justification of all this effort in both the program and in the ART's newsletter--also available online at American Repertory Theatre. The verbiage hardly prepares one for the somewhat depressing spectacle of the performance, and read afterwards won't clear things up much. It would be interesting to see as skillful a company tackle the script Chekov wrote, try of understand why he though a Muscovite audience in 1900 might find it funny, and treat it as a comedy, perhaps even adding a bit of schtick now and then. And one could easily reverse Irina's "tragedy" at the end by having both Tuzenbach and Solyony show up with their arms in slings at the final moment. Lupa incidentally decided to go the other direction by having Tuzenbach appear in an upstage doorway like Banquo's ghost, just one more bit of excessive underlining, trying to squeeze universal tragedy out of these unfulfilling provincial lives.

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