11 December 2005: Chekhov, Three Sisters

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Krystian Lupa, with set designs also by Lupa.

No birch trees in this production. Lupa keeps it all indoors, even the final act, which Chekhov called for to be staged outside. Lupa is apparently well-known for his monolithic high walls and windows. Here, a cavernous space bordered by drab grey walls, supposedly the interior of the Prozorov home; a sofa, a table, almost lost in this large space. Upstage, mirror-like scrim, through which can be seen a large dining table around which numerous chairs are placed: it is Irina’s birthday. At the highest point upstage, a very tall staircase leading to a single door, some twenty-five or more feet above the stage floor. This yields the divided playing area hinted at in Chekhov’s script. The same set serves through the entire production; the Act III bedroom scene is set in the center of the space, and the scrim is flown out of sight. Thus, also, for Act IV. At the periphery of the space, downstage almost against the floor spots, a single red line running the length of the distance between the ends of the proscenium arch. And fixed into the arch itself, an illuminated (neon, or similar) tubular red light, running across the floor, up the sides of the arch, and a few feet along the top of the arch on either side. It was turned on for extended moments, as if to emphasize the fiction­al boundary of the illusion.

The key phrase in this production was “It doesn’t make any difference,” and the most frequent utterance of it comes from Chebutykin, the nihilistically inclined military physician, incompetent and full of despair. The utterance reson­ates as other characters say it, or words to that effect. Overall, the atmosphere established by Lupa is so grim and unyieldingly oppressive that one tends to sense a broad strain of hopelessness in the proceedings.

And yet the three-and-a-half-hour length of the production seems not at all too long; we are held, deeply interested in the action — and there is an action here, in not only the Chekhovian sense but in the more common sense of effect­ive, meaningful drama. As Maurice Valency used to explain, years ago in his Columbia lectures on modern drama, Chekhov’s major dramas are organized by an overarching structural presence: an arrival, a sojourn, and a departure. In Three Sisters it is Vershinin’s arrival that acts like a catalyst on the Prozorov family of three sisters and an elder brother. Although he doesn’t interact with any of them except Masha — who begins by finding him odd, but soon falls in love with him — his position as the military leader, commander of the artillery brigade, seems to reorder the military presence; and when, in Act III, there are mentioned rumors of the departure of the military for Poland, perhaps, or China, it feels like the beginning of the end.

This is partly because of the leitmotif that Chekhov cleverly plays against this central plot device, the hope of the three sisters to return to Moscow — a hope that first-time viewers or readers of the play (there are still a few of them left) may naively cherish for two or three acts. That is, for a while some of us may entertain the idea that there may be a departure for Moscow by the end of the play. No accident, in fostering this hope, that Chekhov gives Vershinin a back­ground that includes living in Moscow. When he arrives at the Prozorov house on Irina’s birthday, it is revealed that he comes from Moscow, and he is immed­iate­ly descended upon by the three sisters, who want to know all the details of his life there; for they too “come from Moscow” and vaguely remember their time there before their father was shipped off to this nameless provincial city, taking his luckless family with him. Ever since, even as they grew up from girl­hood to blossoming womanhood, they have longed to return. The play is thus about their dashed hopes, and as a highlighted feature of that loss we get the doomed love affair of Masha and Vershinin.

Into this solid and vital dramatic structure comes the fatalistic inspiration of Krystian Lupa, who (to judge from Gideon Lester’s interview with him printed in the program) sees the play as increasingly unrealistic and fragmented: after the two predominantly realistic sequences of Acts I and II, Act III has, he says, a “trans­­form­ative quality,” that of a “religious ritual” in which the three sisters experience joy and a renewal of their love for one another. Well, we do see them throw their arms around one another, all right, but as for religious transform­ation? You could have fooled me. If I had not read this interview (and I was tempted not to; I had no time to read it before seeing the play, and in retrospect I’m glad I only read it afterwards) I would not have had any sense at all that Chekhov’s play was veering away from the “highly realistic” (that’s Lupa again) style of the first two acts. As for Act IV, Lupa insists it is full of “fragmented scenes” that simply don’t come together. It’s as if, in his view, the play collapses rather than ends. What Lupa is most interested in, in fact, are the silences. He cites the good-bye scene between Irina and Tusenbach, on his way to be killed in a duel by the remorseless, jealous, fanatical Solyoni, as a scene in which neither can say to the other what is really on her or his mind. And, true enough, the scene, like many others, is punctuated by long pauses and much tense pacing back and forth, until we come to its Chekhovian climax: one of Chekhov’s signa­ture climaxes, so low-key and seemingly trivial, yet a moment that sums up every­thing that has previously transpired — Tusenbach says to Irina, I didn’t get any coffee this morning; would you have them make some for me? So deeply loaded, that request. A kind of magic request — if coffee is waiting for me, then I’ll have to survive the duel to take advantage of it. A suggestion — probably false — that Tusenbach has foregone his morning stimulant so that his hand will be as steady as possible on the pistol. A kindness to Irina, to give her something to occupy herself with while she waits for Tusenbach to return. And a deliberate trivialization of what is really happening, or going to happen, by sequestering it beneath the commonplaces of everyday life.

Now, it must be admitted that Lupa allows Tusenbach to give full, if muted force, to this veiled good-bye. And it must be said, further, that the pacing of speed and silence throughout the scene has been exquisitely staged — and also said that Lupa’s view of the hopelessness increasingly prevailing comes across at full value. The scene is a memorable one, for all of these reasons. And yet, and yet, Lupa will have no traffic with the slightest romanticizing of the characters, or of Chekhov himself (the doomed tubercular exiled many hundreds of miles from Moscow himself and nursed by a devoted sister). Instead, I believe he errs in the other direction.

To begin with, his casting. The pivotal character of Vershinin, played by a tall, thin, somewhat angular and quite bald fortyish actor named Frank Wood, has been directed by Lupa to be the very opposite of the usual mature leading man with movie star good looks, a stand-in for Errol Flynn, who is so often assigned the role. What in the world did Masha see in this colorless career soldier burdened with a neurotic wife and children? He has no charm, no presence, and is terribly afraid of his own feelings. Granted, he’s a complete contrast to the Kulygin, played with worried pseudo-bravado flare by the ever-nervous, ever dependable Will Le Bow. But really . . . We have to take it on faith that Masha sees something in him that emerges offstage in their trysts at odd moments. And the sisters themselves — all competent actresses (Kelly McAndrews, Molly Ward, and Sarah Grace Wilson), all fairly buxom, tall, and extremely good-looking. McAndrews is far from your school-marm type, with her luxuriant ginger hair and great figure, so much so that we get the idea she is not heart-and-soul into her teacherly lot in life. Ward is more like the slim, not-anorexic but cursed with somber reflection and a bad appetite, unhappily married, purposeless young woman; that part of the equation convinces. Wilson you just want to be a heart-string puller, but Lupa refuses to let her be that. Instead, she is sullen, mostly angry, so consumed with her dream of Moscow that she hates life and hates work in particular.

Tusenbach is more convincing as a well-born fellow who actually has a purpose in life, and perhaps hopes that marrying Irina, whom he deeply loves but who makes no pretense of loving him, will at least perhaps raise her spirits alone; and she may come to love him in time. But, oh, that good-bye scene! Irina is more sullen and morose than ever; and when she says to Tusen­bach, I will be faithful to you and honor you as a wife, but don’t expect me to love you, she’s so mean and cranky, and so depressed over her dawning realiz­ation that marrying Tusenbach lets her in for permanent exile in this colorless not-Moscow, it’s a penance just to see how she treats the poor man — who she knows (as she says a while later, in Chekhov’s script but not in Lupa’s adapt­ation) is not coming back from his appointment with Solyony. This is very heavy, mittel-Europa hopelessness. For her part, Masha keeps hold on her emotions until she is in Vershinin’s arms, and then clings to him so hard that he needs Olga’s help to free himself — which he does in a matter of fact way, without letting the audience or, for that matter, himself see how devastated he may really be over this loss. Lupa is not going to let us shed any sophomoric tears over this colorless catastrophe. Damn.

As for Andrei, played with a kind of feral ferocity by Sean Dugan, it is the most desperate, self-hating, self-destructive Andrei I have ever seen or ever even dreamed of. Now, usually, a director will give us a Natasha who earns the prize for termagancy (I need to coin this word here). But, no, Lupa has a surprise in store for us here too. As played by an actress named Julienne Kim, fairly new to Actors Equity roles, I would think, she is capable of blasts of anger against Anfisa, the servant, but also capable of letting them be just outbursts from an otherwise worried mother so preoccupied with her children and concern over what’s best for them that it just seems only fitting that she should take over the sisters’ bedrooms for them. In other words, none of the calculating shrewish inter­loper of conventional Chekhov performance. She seems uncomprehending of, or just oblivious to, Andrei’s compulsive attempts, notably successful, to ruin his life. But then, Chekhov, after bringing them passionately together at the end of Act I, blithely allows them to fall permanently asunder.

And so Lupa has managed to put his own stamp of independence on Chekhov’s so-often-performed play. My companion, who read the play for the first time in an adaptation by David Mamet just last week and who never had seen the play in production before, said she was very glad to have read the play, even in what seemed more like a Mamet play than anything else, because otherwise she would’ve had great trouble following the action and keeping the characters straight. In fact, Lupa either muted some plot lines or actually omitted some — the danger, always, with producing classics that can suffer from over-famil­iarity. It is one thing to bring your own formidably strong-minded interpretation to a play almost all of us know, and quite another thing to make it comprehensible and clear for the first-time viewer. Lupa’s freshness is a luxury here, purchased by his fame as a director. But what he does here he does in contradistinction to what a lot of other directors (and actors) have already done. It would be perhaps beyond reasonable expectation to ask a director, any director, to mount Three Sisters as if it had no stage history at all. But that’s what true freshness would be.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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