nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 8, 2005
As someone who spends a lot of his time cheerleading for emerging theatre artists, I both understand and applaud Brian Kulick's impulse to lend support and resources, via Classic Stage Company's new "On the Verge" series, to young directors like Pavol Liska. Please know that although what follows may seem challenging, it's not meant to be. I'm just surprised and a little perplexed at how underwhelmed I was by my introduction to Liska's work.
In press and publicity materials for Three Sisters, Kulick hails Liska as "one of the most interesting directors to emerge in several generations" and calls this production a "revelation." Here, alas, Kulick has lost me: Liska's gimmicky staging of Three Sisters revealed nothing to me about the work, and on the basis of it—admittedly, the only piece of Liska's I've yet seen; I'll be interested to see others—I don't understand what Kulick is so excited about.
It felt great at first. The set, designed by Jian Jung, is a stark, open floor covered with shiny linoleum tiles of white, black, and red; the only furnishings, so to speak, are a bright white trash can, a rack of shoes at the rear of the stage, and a travel poster with "Moscow" written on it in big print. As we enter the space, standing center stage with her back to us, arms hugging her body as if she wants to collapse into a fetal position on the floor but knows she mustn't, is someone who we can instantly recognize as Masha, the middle and most overtly discontented sister. Offstage we hear sounds of a good time—loud bursts of laughter punctuating an otherwise low din. I thought: this is interesting—the happiness is happening just out of our range; that might mean something.
But once the play proper begins, Liska abandons this promising conceit and instead proceeds to drown Chekhov in a a parade of show-offy devices that do little but announce "Look at me! Look at me!" A great fuss is made, for example, about shoes: characters constantly take them off or put them as they enter or exit, for what reason I cannot say. The sisters are costumed (by Anka Lupes) in mod style, while the other characters wear clothes of various periods; in the third act, most of them are stripped down to underwear. Vershinin—the soldier who falls in love with Masha—is presented as a crashing bore who, whenever he talks, seems to impel everyone else on stage to follow behind him the way that Bugs Bunny creeps behind Elmer Fudd. Solyony—the sullen soldier in love with the youngest sister, Irina—hugs Vershinin every time they're together, and in the third act falls asleep next to the old doctor Chebutykin with his hand caressing the doctor's private parts. There are flowers in the trash can, and later someone vomits into it. Characters employ direct address a lot, but inconsistently. There's a TV on which Andrey—the three sisters' brother—watches what sounds like porn. Masha masturbates Vershinin with her leg. Irina bends over a lot to reveal panties under her mini skirt. The sisters shout passionately in unison whenever Moscow is mentioned.
And so on. The thing is, though there are whiffs of interesting ideas buried in all of this, the effect for me was numbing. All I got out of the ninety minute experience was a sense of Liska trying to get attention—lots of it—by proving how clever and naughty he can be. Now the fact is, Liska clearly has talent and imagination—he creates many memorable pictures and images on stage, and he uses space and bodies in inventive and unusual ways. But he hasn't interpreted Three Sisters here so much as waged war against it. With Chekhov dead and buried 'lo these hundred years, Liska's victory over the text is assured. But is that really what a director is supposed to be doing?
I should note that most of the ten actors executed Liska's often technically complicated moves diligently; two of them turned in performances that seemed to have some emotional depth and validity, as well (Fletcher Liegerot at Baron Tuzenbach, also in love with Irina, and Marc Dale as Chebutykin).