THREE SISTERS (Arden Theatre): Does the gimmick stick?

THREE CHEKHOV SISTERS: From left, Sarah Sanford (as Olga), Mary Tuomanen (as Irina) 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)
THREE CHEKHOV SISTERS: From left, Sarah Sanford (as Olga), Mary Tuomanen (as Irina) 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)

THREE SISTERS is the story not only of its title characters—the sisters Olga (Sarah Sanford), Masha (Katharine Powell) and Irina (Mary Tuomanen)—but also of the various characters who shuffle in and out of their country home over the course of a few years. It’s a soap opera on wheels as nearly everyone falls in love, gets caught up in adultery and waxes philosophical, all while sinking deeper and deeper into the exact sorts of lives they never wanted to lead. They long for the urban warmth of Moscow but can’t figure out how to get there from here. Love turns to resentment, ambition turns to complacency, and winter turns—inevitably—back into winter.

The play is told in four acts, during which, as director Terrence J. Nolen notes in his introduction, “Nothing happen(s); and absolutely everything.” The conversations are meandering and seemingly trivial, yet revelations rise slowly to the surface as it goes on and on. The gradual build becomes bewitching once the viewer begins to pick up on the trend. It’s the long, slow decay of life that Chekhov aims to recreate, and he manages to pull it off by writing a long, slow hymn to existential dread.

Nolen’s approach to his production seems intent on mirroring those themes, but sadly it winds up distorting them. 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. But Nolen’s actors aren’t hanging out “in character” or prepping for the performance. They’re in street clothes, and when they finally sit down under the work lights—with even the house lights still up—we find them in rehearsal. Sanford reads stage directions from the script while the actors screw around and occasionally pause to voice confusion about the lines. There are no wings; the doors to the backstage are open; the whole thing is being filmed for some unspecified reason. Everything is loose and half-focused. Nolen shoots for a candid atmosphere, but it’s forced candidness, and with less talented actors the gimmick would fall flat.

The “rehearsal” scenario is not sustained for the whole of the performance. Rather, the cast builds the play from the bones on outward. Furniture gradually moves into place and creates a mock-up of the set. Actors change clothes one piece at a time.

It’s a nifty effect, and the actors and crew are expert at not calling attention to the small changes that quietly take us from rehearsal to performance. Sometimes, during scene transitions, actors will pick up instruments and burst into song; Tuomanen and Scott Greer (playing either a doctor or a misplaced Orson Welles) doing a ukulele duet of the Guy Lombardo standard “Little Coquette” is a fun distraction, and a haunting chorus during the final transition strikes an apt note of mourning. The in-scene music, composed by James Sugg, seems to sneak in just below the action to gorgeous effect.

It’s fun while it lasts, for sure. But does it work? And is it, after all, the play that Chekhov wrote?

The issue is that THREE SISTERS is too complex to be as iconic as plays like Hamlet and A Doll’s House that invite twisted, modern re-imaginings. Its impact lies not in legendary speeches or gut-wrenching reversals. The meat of the play is in the dialogue, and the free-form goofery of the first half of Arden’s production distracts us from what the characters are saying. We pick up the story from context clues, but the effect is diminished. It’s neat to watch talented actors have fun with each other, but it deprives us of much of the story, which is what we came for.

For all its irritating ambiguity, however, Nolen’s production strikes a chord. The unimpeachable cast manages as best it can within the production’s odd framework, and by the third act we’ve got a really special performance on our hands. Chekhov’s aims, as best as I discern them, come across, and the emotional impact is worth the wait. Nolen’s only serious misstep is adding extra busywork to play that’s already excruciatingly long. [Arden Theatre, 40 N 2nd] March 20-April 20, 2014.

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