Anton Chekhov cautions, "Let the things that happen on stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up." In their current production of Three Sisters, the Shotgun Players pay careful heed to Chekhov's dictum-and create a lovely, moving, intelligent, and heartfelt production, staged with simplicity and grace by Reid Davis and performed by an ensemble of actors who inhabit the complex roles with charm, passion, and selflessness. There are some problems with pacing, particularly in the second act, and a few performances on opening night didn't feel as tightly focused and connected to the text (cleanly translated here by Carol Rocamora) as they should have been. But these are relatively minor quibbles, and the Shotgunners can take credit for a deeply satisfying and stirring show that finds fresh meaning in Chekhov's hundred-year-old meditation on family loyalty and the death of dreams.
Davis' staging makes the link between stage life and real life early on; the actors take the stage along with the crew at the beginning, quietly discussing the placement of set pieces and props. Then we're swept into the world of the Prozorov family for the next two and a half hours.
I must confess a certain sentimental fondness for this play, borne of the fact that I am one of three sisters (oddly, the same factor doesn't color my love for King Lear). And that fondness is cemented here by the extraordinary performances of Katie Bales as Olga and Beth Donohue as Masha, the two oldest of the siblings. Bales is wired, sensitive, and intensely present; her spinster schoolteacher has a wistful, palpable awareness of how much her life is evaporating before her eyes. And Donohue fleshes out the volcanic passion, rage, and mordant wit quivering underneath Masha's tightly wound carriage with mesmerizing skill-Donohue can do more with a raised eyebrow than most actors can with an entire battery of expressions. The flash of red stockings under Masha's tightly buttoned black dress (Valera Coble's costumes are rich with telling details) reveal the sanguine heart under Masha's controlled, somber carapace.
As Irina, the youngest sister, Maria Candelaria's performance is more problematic. Her line readings in the first act tend to be flat and a bit rushed. But Candelaria grows into the part over the course of the show. And her rendering of Irina's famous speech on the loss of all her dreams ("I've forgotten how to say window and floor in Italian!") is truly heartbreaking.
Amanda Duarte's conniving sister-in-law, Natasha, is a delicious terror; her speeches rhapsodizing about the cleverness of her spawn make her sound like a 19th-century Russian version of Kathie Lee Gifford. Todd Parmley brings a mournful and just-biting-enough edge to Andrei, Natasha's henpecked spouse. Robert Parsons turns the Baron Tuzenbach, Irina's doomed suitor, into a beacon of light and sympathy. As Vershinin, Masha's lover, Phil Stockton is solid, decent, and free of the bile that sometimes creeps into this character. Danny Wolohan's odd-man-out Solyoni is charmingly off-kilter, and suitably creepy. (And he nails one of my favorite lines in Chekhov when he responds, perfectly deadpan, to one of Natasha's odes to her offspring with "If that child were mine, I would fry him up in a skillet and eat him.")
Davis uses the proscenium stage at the Speakeasy to good effect as he adroitly moves actors and props off and on the stage. His staging of Tuzenbach's final exit is just lovely; Parsons is caught in the center aisle, in an autumnal glow of light (courtesy of Alex Lopez), as he quietly bids farewell to Irina. A particularly clever bit of stage business is repeated twice, with very different effects. Just before Duarte's Natasha moves into the Prozorov household (with calamitous results), Bales' Olga assists her into her dressing gown with barely disguised contempt. Later, in a much more tender moment, Donohue's Masha helps Irina into her clothes. Together, the two moments encapsulate beautifully the difference between work done out of distasteful duty, and that done out of transcendent love-and it is this conflict that lies at the heart of Chekhov's play. And of course that struggle still exists, one hundred years later. Irina decries "work without poetry, work without meaning" while Natasha dismisses the sisters' old nanny with "There's no place for useless people here." In an era when writing has been downgraded to "content providing" and those not in sync with the mindset and tastes of the twenty-something demographic are invisible, these moments still resonate. But for me, there is nothing more powerful in this play than the final tableau of the trio of brave, lonely, thwarted women, holding each other tightly as they look out on the wasteland of their remaining years with pride and an odd sense of felicity.
Three Sisters is quintessential Chekhov, as far as it deals with mooning, overeducated, well-to-do people in the country who wish they were mooning, overeducated, well-to-do people in the city, or anywhere else so long as it's not on some godforsaken nowhere provincial Russian estate. Sometimes I wish Chekhov had stretched a little, and written a sequel to one of his plays, like Three Sisters Go to Moscow, say, in which Olga, Irina, and Masha would spend a wild summer cruising A-list parties and having a half-dozen meaningless affairs. It would have been good for his characters, and it might have given a healthy jolt to the czarist Russian soul.
Since he didn't, you'll have to settle for Chekhov done well, which is how the Shotgun Players are doing him. Their Three Sisters at the Speakeasy has a few fancy flourishes (like Slavic folk music) but mostly feels -- I mean this in the best sense -- like plain wooden furniture. Director Reid Davis has kept the pace slow and deliberate; his cast is unpretentious but potent. "Chekhov's plays, more than those of any other dramatist, aspire to and achieve the condition of music," John Simon once wrote, and although I can't say Davis' production made me want to hum, every scene that starts in a slack and tedious monotone manages to end in a lyrical flurry.
The show begins with house lights up; cast and crew wander onstage with glasses, candles, tables, and chairs. They whisper good luck to each other and then Olga starts to speak. This blurring of the line between reality and spectacle feels like an homage to Vanya on 42nd Street (most of the live Chekhov I've seen in the last few years can't get away from that film, but it also sets a perfect tone). "It's a year ago today that father died, May 5th, on your birthday, Irina," says Olga, and Katie Bales performs her with a smiling Chekhovian detachment, seeming to talk to herself, or to the audience, instead of her sister.
Maria Candelaria's Irina has the same filmy-eyed disconnect; when she gives her speech on the nobility of work, the whole living room listens politely, although she's mouthing platitudes. "How wonderful it must be to get up at dawn and pave streets, or be a shepherd ...." Candelaria seems uneven and uncomfortable, but she's absolutely in character. Irina's dreaminess dissipates in the third act, and when she rails about her tedious job at the telegraph office, Candelaria quits being uneven and breaks down with heartbreaking acuity.
Beth Donohue also plays an effective Masha, standing around in black and giving everyone sullen looks. She's married to a fool, Kulygin, but loves a military man, Vershinin. Donohue keeps her talent for disconsolate wailing muted until the very end, and then lets loose, maybe a little too freely. Her strongest scene is Masha's speech about faith and life's hollowness, which manages to sound rather hollow.
Amanda Duarte does a nervous, bubbly job as Natasha, the household imposter who wants to see bright colors and little flowers around her but also cheats on Andrei with Protopopov. Her best moment comes at the end of Act 2, when Protopopov arrives in a carriage. Natasha barrels off in ridiculous perky white furs: "I'll be home in half an hour, just a short ride, that's all!"
As for the men, who tend to declare their love for the most inappropriate women: Phil Stockton is a solid Vershinin, heavyset and imperturbable; Todd Parmley's Andrei comfortably balances a gentleman's reserve with smoldering hunger to get away from his provincial duties and become a university professor. (He even looks Russian, behind his young beard and glasses; the rest of the cast doesn't.) And Danny Wolohan's hopped-up Solyoni adds a nervous tension to the show that it can't do without.
However: Robert Parsons' Tuzenbach, Jeff Elam's Kulygin, and Yuval Sharon's smaller characters are blank spots in the cast, because all three men overplay in different directions. And Michael Frassinelli's understated set turns overstated in Act 3 -- for no clear reason, Olga and Irina's bedroom looks like a bordello. Frassinelli evokes the family garden in the final act with a disappointingly bare stage, but at least it's not a distraction.
The quietly despairing characters in Chekhov's 1900 masterpiece worry about how future generations will remember them -- as silly and stupid, or noble and humane? -- so Davis emphasizes Fedotik's snapshots, and even gives him one or two more to take. The point is millennial, timely, because those still moments caught in the icy flash look like photos you might find in your attic. They not only deflate the romance of bygone times but also beg the horrible question of how our grandchildren might remember us. Three modern sisters would more than likely sell the dacha and live high in Moscow; the world's surface has changed convulsively since 1900. But has it grown morally better? Have pettiness and spiritual desperation gone away? An honest answer is enough to give you the Chekhovian heebie-jeebies.