All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Initial signs of the Arden production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” are ominous. You enter the theater, and the first thing you see is a replica of a rehearsal hall, a fairly blank stage with paint instead of tape marking where a fireplace might be or a rug is to lay, random chairs behind dime-a-dozen tables made from compressed wood chips, musical instruments and a video camera carelessly placed stage left and right, and the actors milling about in street clothing looking about as Russian as Julie Andrews and as military as Sheldon Cooper.
Absolutely frightening. You think, “Oh, crap. A concept production. They can’t just do ‘Three Sisters.’ They have to have a frame for it or comment about it.” Next come thoughts about open-mindedness and taking the production for what it is, no matter what it is. Kind, neutral, objective thoughts that ameliorate the impulse to flee.
The show starts, with Sarah Sanford, the actress playing Olga, the eldest of the Prozorov sisters, reading stage directions in a bland, just-running-lines type voice. Knuckles whiten, but “Breathe. See what happens,” becomes the mantra. You plow on.
Thank goodness. Rewards will come quickly and often. Arden director Terrence J. Nolen did not decide to deconstruct Chekhov or anything as vile and self-serving as that. As actors begin to read — They hold scripts — they get more and more into their parts. As the play proceeds, costumes appear, and furnishings become more authentic. The samovar that had, in one gimmick, to be allegedly defined for Mary Tuomanen, playing Irina, the youngest Prozorov, is no longer a concept, a picture, or something ugly. It’s there in silver, or silver plate, for Cathy Simpson, playing Anfisa, the Prozorov nanny and housekeeper, to use in reality. Later on, the Prozorov house materializes. Set designer Eugene Lee really did have a world to create. Nolen has taken you through the process of how a script develops into a full production by time-lapsing the steps before your eyes. In spite of some initial irritations or bits that are too cute, he does it painlessly and without damaging Chekhov or the flow of “Three Sisters,” as translated by Providence’s Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus.
Nolen’s approach even has some worthy byproducts. By sidling into “Three Sisters” slowly, he uses Sanford’s announcement of entrances and exits to introduce Chekhov’s characters more individually and deliberately. Hearing “Tusenbach” enters or “Solyony exits in a huff,” reveals immediately which character is which. There’s no asking, “Now which is Tusenbach and which is Solyony?” Or “Chebutikin is a doctor who lives downstairs?” You get a sense of the characters and their personalities from the start. Within minutes of “Three Sisters” beginning, and you can chart those minutes because a clock sits keeping real time sits on the “rehearsal hall” wall throughout Act I, you forget Nolen’s tricks and enter into the play. Even self-conscious moves don’t interrupt the action. The world of the Prozorovs, the three sisters, their brother, Andre, and his wife, Natasha, unfolds gracefully and with clarity. Nolen has eased you into that world instead of immersing you and letting you fend for yourself to catch up with identities or character traits. His gambit may be a tad condescending, although I would guess it isn’t meant to be so. In the long run, it’s harmless and may have the benefit of guiding you to pay attention to details that may have been missed in a production that opens conventionally. The Arden’s “Three Sisters” will become more conventional as it proceeds. From beginning to end, it is a solid, involving piece that moves quickly through its three-hour duration and cannily unveils and accents all the character traits and events that make Chekhov’s work the classic it deserves to be.
Nolen and an able cast invite you into the Prozorovs’ milieu as eyewitnesses to their lives. The routine, such as Olga and brother-in-law, Kulygin, Masha’s husband, teaching school and complaining about officials and their sanctions; the upsetting, such as Natasha’s constant manipulation and bullying of her sisters-in-law; the festive, in the form of parties and gatherings the sister share with the military officers stationed in the town where their father was once the commander of the garrison; the mundane, such as whiling away hours in idle conversation and philosophical speculation; the longing, such as the sisters’ famous intention to leave the military outpost and return to Moscow or the feelings Irina has for Tusenbach; the gossip, such as Natasha openly having liaisons with Protopopov, the head of the town council; and the romance, in the form of the ardent affair Masha and Vershinin carry on in spite of both being married, all blend felicitously to create a complete and ongoing picture of all that occurs in the four acts Chekhov provides for us. While the Arden “Three Sisters” rarely soars or radiates brilliance, its steadiness, naturalism, and lucidity make it constantly engaging and entertaining. It is the perfect production for people who shy away from Chekhov stagings for fear of them being lifeless or stodgy. Nolen and company never allow things to get dull or static. They exude humanity in all of its variety from robust to sedentary, and the lives they lead and the ideas they express remain realistically animated and engrossingly interesting throughout the show.
The Prozorov sisters and their brother, Andre, were born in Moscow and led an active social life going to plays, ballets, and shops while having many visitors call at their home. Their late father was a military commander who was, in the days of Czar Nicholas, assigned to a military outpost in the Russian countryside. The father passes, and the sisters, ranging in age from 28 (Olga) to 20 (Irina) are left in the rural area where their father led troops. When we meet them, they have been in their remote district for 11 years. Although Irina was age nine when her family came to their current home, she joins her sisters in missing the more diverse and sophisticated life in Moscow. In fact, Irina expresses the desire to move to Russia’s capital more than Olga or Masha, who must have more vivid memories of it.
Though life in the country is limited, it is leavened by the various cadres of officers who come to serve at the garrison. The Prozorovs are most comfortable in the company of soldiers, many of whom are as cultured and as accomplished as the sisters and Andre, a scholar and professor. Without the military visitors, the Prozorovs would have little outside company. They are a bit snobbish and do not find much in common with the provincial residents of their current town.
In typical Chekhovian form, most of the people in “Three Sisters” are discontent or totally unhappy. They may not be as caustic as another Masha, from “The Sea Gull,” who says she wears black because she is in mourning for her life, but each character speaks of something that makes him or her miserable. In spite of the general malaise, Chekhov’s characters do not sit around moping or wail about their cursed fortune. They go about their lives coping the best they can and eking joy where it is available. Nolen’s production is rife with instances in which the Prozorovs and their companions entertain themselves with music. Conversation is another pastime, and the Arden troupe is to be commended on never letting scenes become dense or tiresome by being talky.
As with most people, the Prozorovs and their friends have secrets, fears, yearnings, and other emotions. Chekhov acquaints you with these in turn. Characters like Masha, Vershinin, and Natasha often stand out because of the drama they experience or cause. At the Arden, most of the characters make their feelings known, and Irina, Tusenbach, Solyony, Chebutikin, and even the nanny, Anfisa have significant scenes that show they are equal figures in Chekhov’s overview of the educated upper class in the last decade before Russia would give way to the Soviet revolution.
For so many characters to register and make an impact, the acting must be strong, and the Arden “Three Sisters” boasts some lovely performances.
In most productions of “Three Sisters,” the character of Tusenbach, a soldier who retires and rents a room in the Prozorov home, fades into the ensemble and seems more functionary than integral and authentic. At the Arden, James Ijames endows him with strong character. He is more than one who populates the Prozorov scenery. His role as a welcome suitor to Irina and foil to Solyony take on more focus. Ijames shows Tusenbach’s graciousness and illustrates why he is appreciated, not only by Irina, but by her sisters as well as someone who brings breeding, humor, and good fellowship to the Prozorov’s daily lives. He is the congenial, self-possessed kind of man one wants as a friend and a brother-in-law.
Tusenbach is also a man of chivalry. His ragging and correction of Solyony and an unexpected rivalry for Irina have dire results. Because of Ijames’s performance, those results cut deeper and are more affecting. While one usually thinks of Irina upon hearing news of Tusenbach’s fate, Ijames turns your attention to the man himself and give him your empathy.
In contrast to Tusenbach, the character of Natasha always stands out in mountings of “Three Sisters.” She is the temperamental opposite of the sisters. While they are refined, Natasha, their brother’s wife, is coarse. While they attempt to be diplomatic and cooperative, Natasha is demanding to the point of being bossy and unyielding. She embodies the country, the provincial outpost the Prozorovs must call home and has none of the finesse or manners one might learn in Moscow.
Rebecca Gibel plays on Natasha’s commonness. When her Natasha marries Andre, she makes no attempt to fit in with her sisters-in-law, even though she is sharing a home with two of them, and Olga is the one who runs the house.
Once she has a child, a son, Bobyk, Natasha becomes more insistent and claims an equal right with Olga to make decisions. Once she has another child and is entrenched in the Prozorov home for several years, she declares that she is the one with most authority and bullies her milder, less argumentative relatives.
Gibel shows Natasha’s difference from her first entrance. She is not as groomed, not as confident, not as elegant as the sisters or the officers who visit them. A comment about an accessory she’s wearing, a belt, makes this clear to Natasha, and while she reacts slightly to the comment and is taken aback by it, you can tell the criticism fills her with resentment she feels obligated to repay when the time is right.
Gibel’s Natasha has no grace. Her step is heavy and her way of going about things more brusque than direct. When Gibel’s Natasha makes suggestions, you sense she is really issuing orders and that she will persist until she gets her way. She has the confidence and belligerence of a suburbanite who comes from a community that is second class but believes he or she, with his or her common sensibility, knows the way things should, nay must, be done and who will look down on the superior ways of people who are more genteel or unconventional. Natasha becomes so nasty and disagreeable, you almost take it out on Bobyk and Sophie because she uses her status as a mother as her lever to gain so many concessions. Nolen is wise to include Sophie in a scene. Once you see the child, it is towards Gibel’s Natasha that you once again aim your scorn.
To Gibel’s credit, she does make Natasha into a harridan or a shrew. It is the incidental, inbred way with which Natasha makes her first requests, more conspiratorial and practical than outrightly insistent that informs you how insidious she is capable of being. What she wants is not illogical or illegitimate, a less drafty room for her son, for instance, but getting her way means encroaching on someone else’s habits or discomfiting one or two people by forcing them to share space when they once enjoyed privacy. Natasha’s requests are grasping and acquisitive. They require someone else to relinquish an amenity or pleasure. Gibel plays this part of Natasha’s nature well. Natasha knows what she’s doing but needs to see how far she can go to further her advantage.
In later scenes, Gibel shows Natasha to be even more aggressively in charge. She won’t relent from wanting to send Anfisa, the elderly nurse, from the Prozorov home without a care to where the nanny resides or how she lives. She barks in a most un-Prozorovlike manner when she spies a fork on the floor under a table. She remains self-assured and even haughty as people gossip about, but never dare mention to her, the affair she is having with the head of the town council right before the town’s eyes.
Chekhov has the cuckolds in “Three Sisters,” Andre and Kulygin tacitly tolerate their wives’ infidelity. Kulygin only refers to Masha’s love for Vershinin while expressing his forgiveness for it. At the Arden, Luigi Sottile and Charlie Thurston play these docile men admirably and with accepting spirit.
Sottile is especially effective as Andre. The only Prozorov brother, whose order in age is never established — I place him between Masha and Irina in birth order. — Andre is spoiled by his sisters. He is a scholar whose work, and peace to work, is given priority. The sisters and Anfisa fret about whether he eats or is dressed warmly, much more than Natasha does, and Andre idly and automatically accepts this attention as his due.
Andre is accomplished and works, but he is also indulged by all around him except for Natasha who is solicitous in her own truculent way. Sottile plays him as quiet, content man of leisure, an easygoing person who has the run of the house and the pleasure of its visitors’ company but takes no hand in helping his sisters or wife with anything domestic or substantial. Andre is the beneficiary of being fawned over as the only boy, and Sottile conveys his satisfaction and mildness of character.
Thurston’s Kulygin is more on edge than Sottile’s Andre. As played by Thurston, Kulygin doesn’t fit neatly or comfortably in the Prozorov picture. He is a brother-in-law who makes his wife unhappy because of his bureaucratic blandness. He can match the Prozorovs in knowledge of culture and discussion of literature, but he doesn’t have their polish or confidence. He is as much a product of the country as Natasha is, but much less assertive or intrusive.
Thurston plays Kulygin as being out of kilter with the Prozorov environment yet makes us feel something for the high school teacher, a colleague of Olga, to whom he is better suited than to Masha, in his simple, honest way of approaching matters and dealing with Masha’s obvious romance with another.
Katharine Powell is an excellent Masha, conveying the character’s ennui and dissatisfaction while also endowing her with wit and a lively spirit that attracts Vershinin and makes Masha the most interesting of the Prozorov women.
Powell has a wonderful way with dialogue. Her Masha sees clearly and speaks plainly but displays a knowing perspective on life and her position in it. She can be wry and ironic even as she’s being direct. Powell also gives Masha a poise and confidence that is greater yet less studied than her sisters’.
Mary Tuomanen brings out the youth and optimism of Irina in early scenes and the mature resignation of the character in later acts. More than in any other character, even Natasha, you can see Irina’s growth and disillusionment.
Irina is usually the sister who talks about Moscow. The city is as much a part of her youthful imagination, the ideal of which she must get more from hearing her parents and sisters speak of the capital than from her own childhood experience, as anyone’s, and you can see why she longs to go there and have a merrier, more active life than the provinces provide. At the same time, Irina is the sister most used to the ways of the country and gets the company she needs from the soldiers who visit. Tuomanen shows this settled yet wishful side of Irina.
Sarah Sanford is much the matriarch and professional woman, Olga, who is not the oldest Prozorov but the headmistress of the local school, must be. Sanford’s unfailingly erect posture and commanding expression establish her as the leader among her family and the person others must mind when visiting the Prozorovs.
Only Natasha seems to challenge Olga’s authority, Gibel playing off of Sanford’s noble way of carrying herself by surprising Olga more than seeking a discussion with her.
Sam Henderson makes his mark early as the difficult Solyony, a man who spouts nonsense and nonsequiturs with abandon and becomes agitated if one asks his meaning or challenges his pronouncements. He is particularly biting when it comes to Tusenbach, of whom he is obviously jealous, his one-sided rivalry being rife with consequence.
Like Ijames, Henderson gives Solyony and his eccentricity more weight than in many productions of “Three Sisters” and the character has a greater, more palpable effect throughout Nolen’s staging in which he not confined to being the central figure in a single scene.
That marvelous actress Cathy Simpson is dear and wise as Anfisa. Simpson has a way of both showing and negating Anfisa’s 80 years. She plays her as a woman whose age may have forced her to slow down but who wants to be useful and fulfill her long-time duties in the Prozorov home. Simpson is heartbreaking in the scene in which Anfisa feels threatened by Natasha’s campaign to cast her to an unknown fate.
Another reliable performer, Scott Greer, conveys both the indolence and the intellectual bent of his character, the doctor, Chebutikin, who may be highly trained but prefers to sit and read or being philosophical discussions.
Ian Merrill Peakes is a pleasant, noble Vershinin who constantly considers matters as they be viewed in the future.
Louis Lippa, Jake Blouch, and Daniel Ison go about their various business efficiently and add to Nolen’s production.
The Arden “Three Sisters” grow in intensity as it builds from a figurative rehearsal to a full-blown production on a stage filled with trees and the Prozorov house in the background. It doesn’t aim for drama, in the sense of high and low points, as much as showing the ongoing flow of life in the Prozorov’s world, thus accenting the stasis and discontent in which many of the characters claim to find themselves.
Nolen’s production never gets tiresome. There is always something going on to capture your attention, and the thoughts and ideas Chekhov gives his characters are expressed in a way that lets you consider the gist of a statement along with the person who made and those who heard him or her. The ambling, naturalistic sensibility of the production is its virtue. It transcends the gimmick at its beginning and conveys the continuing world Chekhov created in a way that is unendingly engaging and leads Olga felicitously to her closing lines about life going on and that one must work to master it.
Both Eugene Lee and Olivera Gajic are to be congratulated on how they kept up with Nolen’s conceit and made their sets and costumes more complex and realistic as the story of “Three Sisters” developed. Jorge Cousineau did his usual expert job as the sound designer. His graphic displays were enlightening, although the timing of some photos did not match the place in which they appear in Chekhov’s play. F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting was in tune with the mood of each scene, sometimes by contrasting the gloom being expressed on stage with a sunny day. Music and dance are an integral part of Nolen’s staging, and James Sugg’s score added life to it. Scott Greer, Daniel Ison, Mary Tuomanen and others did a fine job in their various musical sequences. Jake Blouch proved to be an able videographer, especially in one shot when he caught Sanford, Powell, and Tuomanen in profile to create a lovely tableau of the three sisters.
“Three Sisters” runs through Sunday, April 20 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $48 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or going online to www.ardentheatre.org.