nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
January 23, 2010
Olga, Masha, and Irina are three Moscow-bred sisters whose father, an army officer, has died a year before the play begins. Now living in a provincial town, the sisters find life dull and dream of a more meaningful existence. Olga, the eldest, is a schoolteacher who, with no prospects of marriage, finds her work burdensome and tiring; Masha, the middle sister, is unhappily married to Kulygin, also a teacher; and Irina, the youngest, dreams of returning to Moscow, where she imagines potential love and a bright future await her. Their brother Andrei, a scholar, marries Natasha, a village woman with bad taste, who assumes control over the household in which they all live. The sisters hope to sell their home so they can move, but Andrei mortgages the house to pay off his gambling debts, destroying any chance of them ever getting back to Moscow. Characters include Chebutykin, an elderly doctor who once loved the girls' mother; Baron Tusenbach, a lieutenant, hopelessly in love with Irina; the self-deprecating Captain Solyony, also in love with Irina; and Vershinin, an army commander, whom Masha loves. You could say love is unrequited in this play.
The staging of The Assembly's production, though leaving little room for the audience, lends itself nicely to the play. Seated along three walls, it's as though we are in the house; however, I think they could have made more use of the audience, considering how close we are in proximity to the action. Toward the end of the play, the cast hands each audience member a single tree branch to create the ambience of the garden, which is a really nice way of inviting us in. (Serving tea from a samovar at intermission is also a festive touch.)
The puzzling element of this production is the use of video camera, which is nuanced though distracting. With three TV screens on stage to display live footage, the characters take turns filming one another or objects on stage. This sort of works at Irina's name day celebration, assuming director Jess Chayes has chosen to stage a modern production. But there is no other indication of a time period; the costumes and general feel of the production are traditional with hints of modernity, which may or may not be intentional (Masha, corseted, wears a black leather jacket towards the end of the play). The choice to film on stage forces characters to modify their behavior for the camera, as they record their lives. This seems to negate what Chekhov writes in the play about how fleeting life is: characters continually mention that one day they will all disappear and have to pave the way for the future. Recording events gives a sense of permanence. While an interesting antithesis, it isn't obvious or risky enough to make a statement.
The winning element of this production is the live music, played in the story by traveling musicians, composed by Brendan McDonough. It certainly captures the Russian liveliness that can't be ignored. Also, the use of four different entrances and exits really gives a sense of life offstage. Likewise when one scene is filmed live offstage, we watch it on the TV screens. Meanwhile, characters exit the scene and come on stage to reveal what is happening behind the scenes. For this reason, I thought the use of video camera was very clever and added value to the production. In other scenes, an image remains on the TV screens. For instance, in the scene following the village fire, the screens display fuzzy orange, which may or may not be representative of fire. The image was shaky, so it was a bit distracting.
What happens on stage is far more interesting. The three sisters are really nicely cast, in their contrast of character. Olga, played by Kate MacCluggage, is poised, strong-willed, and nurturing. Masha, played by Kate Benson, is reminiscent of the cynical, love-struck Masha in The Seagull. We can see how Chekhov's characters bleed into his other plays. Emily Perkins, whose vocal cadence resembles a modern teenager's, captures the lovely vitality of Irina. However, she doesn't exactly go through a transformation by the end of the play. Every actor is interesting and comes on stage with intention. Even one of the minor characters, a soldier boy, is clearly doting on Irina; character relationships are very clearly defined. Notable performances are Chebutykin, played gracefully by Chris Hurt, and Kulygin, played by Cecil Baldwin, who never gets stuck feeling sorry for himself, which makes him more sympathetic. Andrei, played by Ben Beckley, delivers a quite affecting monologue towards the end.
Overall there is a heaviness to this play, and at times it seems it should be played lighter, despite the dire circumstances. But the scenes are uplifted with the music, and the characters really come to life on stage. Once I forgot about the camera, I thoroughly enjoyed listening and watching this beloved play without distraction.