Conversations on Chekhov: What gimmicks? The Arden’s THREE SISTERS has a lasting effect

In September of 1900 Anton Chekhov confessed in a letter to his actress-wife Olga Knipper: “I find it very difficult to write THREE SISTERS, much more difficult than any other of my plays. There are a great many characters, its crowded. I’m afraid it will turn out obscure, pale, dull, verbose or awkward.”

From left:  Mary Tuomanen (as Irina) Sarah Sanford (as Olga),and Katharine Powell (as Masha) as the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Arden Theatre Company production of Anton Chekhov’s play. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

From left: Mary Tuomanen (as Irina) Sarah Sanford (as Olga),and Katharine Powell (as Masha) as the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Arden Theatre Company production of Anton Chekhov’s play. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

It’s 2014, and weeks after seeing a performance the ticket stub from Terrence J. Nolen’s production of Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS on the Arden’s Otto Haas Stage is still in my coat pocket. I can’t seem to throw it out. The production was so perfectly personal. Its taken me a month to even begin writing about it. I wanted to nurse it, mull over it, drag out the experience like sipping a glass of vintage wine. This is not just a play you watch, it’s a play that should have a warning label attached to Curt Columbus’s fresh translation of Chekhov’s 1900 text that reads: This play is so riveting it may cause an existential crisis of sorts. It may make you quit your 9 to 5 day job to move across country This play could make you propose marriage to your boyfriend or girlfriend then break up with them if they say: “No. Not right now.” This play makes you ask: “If not now, when?” It’s a play that you think about first thing in the morning over coffee, on the treadmill, at work. This play will get under your skin. This play can change your life if you let it.

Chekhov is one of my all-time favorite playwrights and I could spend my life arguing in defense of his work, So I can’t help but respond to Michael Fisher’s Phindie review (THREE SISTERS (Arden Theatre): Does the gimmick stick?). Michael said: “When the house opens, the audience finds the actors milling around the fully lit theater—a trend that really needs to stop, because while it’s clearly meant to give the impression of casual naturalism, it usually comes off awkward and stagey.”

No, it doesn’t. This “slice of life-breaking the fourth-wall”-trend  is how Louis Malle’s 1994 film, Vanya on 42nd Street opens, with Wallace Shawn wolfing down a hot dog before entering the theater to play Vanya. Two years ago, for Soho Rep’s production of Uncle Vanya (read my review here) the entire theater was converted into the Serebryakov household. The audience entered, and sat cross-legged on a carpet. I got to climb over Kevin Kline’s head to sit behind him then he told me I could kick him if I needed to. He was nice, and the production was amazing, but I digress.

I didn’t get to sit next to Mr. Kline at the Arden production, I sat next to an actor friend and our conversation went like this: Entering the Arden’s Otto Haas Theater seeing the stretched stage in bare rehearsal mode, the actors swaggering around in street clothes, I said: Oh, its one of those.

My actor friend replied: By saying “one of those” you’re implying that it’s a gimmick. Sarah Sanford reading the stage directions as Olga. The video camera moved by Jake Blouch, and the projector running on the wall, the dressed down table read. They don’t trust the audience. It’s a total gimmick.

Me: No, Chekhov is willfully ripping apart at the seams Eugene Scribe’s formulaic well-made plays that littered the nineteenth century stage with stories of the downfall of women with loose morals and know it all-doctors also known as Raisonneur characters spouting the morals of the playwrights. (Birth control pills did not exist so the theater was used to frighten young women to stay chaste.)

Me again: So here, Nolen is merely following Chekhov’s lead and continuing to deconstruct this this four act play that revolves around three sisters, Olga (Sarah Sanford), Masha (Katharine Powell) and Irina (Mary Tuomanen)  Fearlessly dissecting words like samovar.

After the show was over I continued to lecture my extremely patient companion: And Scott Greer playing Chebutykin, the inebriated army doctor who confesses a patient died on his operating table is kind of a big deal. Perhaps because Chekhov was a doctor himself, or just in sheer rebellion of the well-made plays he is saying to his audience: Nope, I refuse to allow my doctor character to preach to the moral of this play you like priests from pulpits. (Okay, Michael, yes I completely agree with you that Greer is a dead ringer for Orson Wells.)

And I continued: Olga is reading the stage directions because Olga would. Nolen wants us to be conscious that yes, we are watching a play, and time is passing, hence the clock ticking away in plain sight on the wall.

Actor friend: Yeah, it pissed me off when they took down the clock in the second act.

Me: Yes, because the first act is all about the consciousness of the passage of time. As Ian Merrill Peakes says as Lieutenant-colonel Aleksandr Ignatyevich Vershinin : “Yes, we shall all be forgotten. Such is our fate, and we can’t do anything about it. And all the things that seem serious, important and full of leaning to us now will be forgotten one day.”

The camera is a frantic attempt to capture, or bottle up every passing moment. A comment perhaps on our contemporary obsession with social media. People compulsively take pictures of their pancake breakfasts, and posting them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook because maybe they fear death, or that they too will be forgotten. Pancakes forgotten.

The only gripe I had about this show is that James Sugg only composed the music. He didn’t get to act. I guess James Sugg, Scott Greer, and Sam Henderson in the same Chekhov play at the same time—the stage couldn’t hold that much talent? I’d still be obsessing over it… oh wait! I am. [Arden Theatre, 40 N 2nd] March 20-April 20, 2014. ardentheatre.org.

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About the author

Jessica Foley

Jessica Foley is a Philadelphia actor and writer. For more reviews from her, check out Foleygotcomped.blogspot.