Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Three Sisters"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Milton Coykendall

"Three Sisters"

Reviewed by Milton Coykendall

By Anton Checkov
Adapted by Krystian Lupa
Based on a translation by Paul Schmidt
At the American Repertory Theatre through January 1st

Once again, The American Repertory Theatre has brought us a fascinating director, Krystian Lupa, who is directing The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. The play is adapted by Mr. Lupa from a translation by Paul Schmidt.

Because of the limits of space I cannot do full justice to the hard work the ART company has done on this production. What I will do is discuss, what for me, is the most intriguing facet of this particular production: the actors’ and director’s work with subtext. We are told in the program notes that the director encouraged the actors to develop detailed inner lives for their characters. The actors delivered fully on this piece of direction as we see them throughout the production preoccupied with their own thoughts, even when, or especially when, someone else is talking to them. In any Stanislavski based technique of working, actors are encouraged to think the thoughts their characters are thinking in the given circumstances. There are several reasons for this: it helps them stay focused on the here and now and increases their ability to work from their impulses; they will react to circumstances the way their characters would (as opposed to the way they might react) and, it helps them express a rich inner life onstage. When actors accomplish this, they are interesting to watch. Just how long are they interesting to watch when this inner work does not lead to a psychological or physical action is a question worth pondering. Personally, I can watch actors work all day (and the ART actors are very involving), but it occurred to me on more than one occasion during this production that someone less interested in the actor’s process might find their mind wandering at times.

Fortunately, there are many compelling moments in this production that spring from the detailed inner life the actors have meticulously prepared. One such moment is early on in the play when Andrey is squirming, unable to sit still, moving almost dance like in his chair. To put it simply: actor (Sean Dugan) and Mr. Lupa made the subtext physical. This, I believe, goes to the heart of the matter. The most effective work in this production was when the sub textual work the actors (and director) were engaged in here was not an end, but a means to discover the right physical action. In this case it was a creative, accurate, physical expression of Andre’s sub textual world at that very moment. Other such moments include: a compelling non-verbal action where Masha (Molly Ward) invites Vershinin to sit on the couch. She moves in a slow prolonged cross, her face inviting him to sit, but not just to sit literally, but to come to her emotionally; then abruptly, they are informed that his wife has taken an overdose and he has to go. Another instance of the subconscious given form in a physical action is Irina’s (Sarah Grace Wilson) willing, sexualized embrace of Soylinoy (Chris McKinny). Here we have a wonderful, creative expression of her curiosity about love, her desire to experience a passion like the others.

Yet another striking example of this method of working is when Andrey lies atop of Olga, expressing the incestiousness inherent in the claustrophobic intimacy of this family.

By contrast, there are moments when we have just subtext: Vershinin’s confession of love to Masha. This is staged with Vershinin speaking mostly to Masha’s back. This created a feeling of estrangement between the characters that was, I am sure, deliberate. This decision is in keeping with his statement in the program that his intention was to move more and more away from naturalism as the play progressed. There may indeed be a rational for this, but for this writer, it was a disappointment to see the actors emotionally restricted in this scene. Another moment: Vershinin is saying goodbye to Olga as the soldiers are about to leave town. The production adequately captures the awkwardness, the sadness at saying goodbye. However, the silence goes on so long and the Colonel spends so much time looking out a the audience that one is tempted to prompt him to, get on his horse already or at least sit down and have a cup of tea.

Still, this production has much to offer from the highly creative mind of this director, and the dedicated work of the actors. It is provocative theater, which is always a joy, and which is always the norm at The American Repertory Theatre.

Milton Coykendall

"Three Sisters" (26 November - 1 January)
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

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