November 07, 2009

Three sisters


That's how I spent much of the first two acts (of four) of tonight's show, a production of Anton Chekhov's Three sisters. That's probably not entirely the fault of anyone in the room there, because I think the dialogue as written was just dreary—evidently Chekhov isn't really my thing. Time after time, throughout the whole show, there would be lines that seemed to come from nowhere, unmotivated by prior line or contextual activity. (Sometimes, though not always, I would get the impression that even the actor didn't know why they were saying the line; and I'm not talking about Vassily's lines, about which more below.) It couldn't have helped that a wide swath of the audience was laughing in the very strangest places, although the actors did appear to take this more or less in stride.

Also affecting buy-in (for me if not the rest of the audience) were the sheer number of things that took me out of the moment. A few of the pronunciations were decidedly odd, although pronouncing the capital as if spelled "Moscoh" was the only ongoing example of that. (For a long, long time the English pronunciation has rhymed with "cow"; it's not uncommon to hear the other one as some sort of deference to the Russian pronunciation, except that the Russian pronunciation is nothing like that—they'd say "Moskva".) A larger problem was that the translation was very inconsistent. Much of the time the characters would be speaking in a way that more or less evoked the turn of the century in a distant place, and then one would pop out with a phrase like "just peachy", or "he's a riot", or "out for a spin", or "pain in the neck", or "c'mon". Jarring. And finally, the set and props made a clear effort at realism: actual china plates metal silverware, antique couches and screens, lovely period costumes, the works. And then someone drops a box with a painted-on clock face, which may have been filled with beans or sand or marbles or something, and another character remarks that it is "smashed to pieces". One character is a "mess from the fire" despite not even being particularly rumpled. Realism only goes so far, of course, but again, it knocked one out of the context.

The funniest line of the show may have been an unintentional one: a sound effect of bird calls, which sound an awful lot like geese, faded across the stage, and someone (Masha?) remarks on them, looking at them, dreamily watching them fly overhead and saying "Swans..." She then pauses for a beat, just long enough for the whole audience to roll their eyes and think, ok, those are definitely not swans we're hearing; and then she finishes the line, "...or geese." No clue if it was intended as such, but it definitely functioned as a pretty good laugh line.

And yet with all the negativity here—and I'm not going to lie, overall I didn't really care for the play—I thought the actual acting was decent, particularly when they could emote rather than just reciting lengthy monologues at each other. The leads, the three sisters, were pretty clearly the top talent. Abby Harms as Olga really nailed the severe schoolteacher, and Nellie Ognacevic as Irina the romantic could positively glow when events followed their storybook form and summoned stormclouds when they didn't. Each took turns at being my favorite sister for a while, but I have to say I kept coming back to Masha (played by a sophomore, Kate Donoghue): maybe it was just the character I best connected with, but I also thought she conveyed the most complexity and hidden depths; and her grief/madness meltdown at the end had to be among the best I've seen.

I can't say anyone acted poorly, but among the rest of the cast I saw only one clear standout—Steve Selwa as both Vassily and Ferapont. Sure, he gets the funny bizarre non-sequiturs, in both characters. That's fun. But I found the Vassily character to be strangely compelling as well, and his halting diction in this character proved really functional. I saw someone quite normal inside but just painfully awkward on the exterior, and I felt more sympathetic with his character than quite a few of the more major ones. I predict that Knox will see more of this freshman in the future!

The plots of this show are pretty much incidental to the point, which was clearly the character development, and so the later acts were easier to take (since by then we basically knew the characters, even if we still hadn't nailed down all sixteen different names they were ever called by). By the intermission I was engaged enough in the characters that I at least wanted to find out where Masha and Irina (and to a lesser extent Vassily) were headed, and I was curious about some of the others. In the end, although I'm not a fan of the play, I was basically satisfied with an evening well spent.

"It is true that coalition governments are necessarily governments of compromise, and are accused of being in a state of paralysis. But this accusation comes from people who call for action, any action, at all costs. Do something, do anything, they say. Not very good advice." --Moshe Arens

Posted by blahedo at 12:35am on 7 Nov 2009
I have found other Chekov plays boring, or at best dreary. They generally seem like they would be better to act than to watch. Posted by lee at 11:02pm on 8 Nov 2009
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