29 April 2012

'Three Sisters'

Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg brought its highly-praised production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters to the Brooklyn Academy of Music beginning 18 April and Diana, with whom I’m sharing this season’s BAM subscription, and I caught the second performance on Thursday, 19 April, at the Harvey Theater. (Three Sisters ran at BAM through 28 April. MDT last appeared at BAM with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in 2010, a production I didn’t see.) The production, which was performed in Russian with English supertitles, premiered in St. Petersburg in October 2010.

Chekhov completed Three Sisters in 1900, when he was suffering from tuberculosis and living at a house he’d built in Yalta, a fashionable resort city on the Black Sea. The play premièred on 31 January 1901 at the Moscow Art Theater, for whom the dramatist had written it, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. Chekhov wrote the role of Masha for MAT actress Olga Knipper, whom the playwright married on 25 May. (Tuzenbach was played by Vsevolod Meyerhold and Natasha by Stanislavsky’s wife, Maria Lilina. A week before the opening, the director himself decided to appear as Vershinin.) The MAT’s co-founder and dramaturg, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, said the play was “the best production of the Art Theatre.” The MAT’s Three Sisters débuted in New York in 1923 as part of a six-play repertory that also included Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch, The Lower Depths, The Cherry Orchard, The Lady from the Provinces, and The Brothers Karamazoff, helping to introduce stage Realism and the Stanislavsky acting style to the U.S.

This Chekhovian tale, under the direction of MDT artistic director Lev Dodin (who’s made a few small adjustments to the text apparently), follows the Prozorov sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina, and their brother, Andrey, who were forced to leave Moscow for life in a provincial town, following the death of their father a year earlier. The family confronts the gulch between yearnings and reality as the play examines the emotional effects of the family’s loss of status and wealth while they come to terms with the changes in turn-of-the-century society. (One irrelevant thought skittered across my mind at one point: the play is set around 1901 and what neither the characters nor Chekhov could know is that in a little more than a dozen years, World War I will completely disrupt this life, followed by the Bolshevist revolution which will end it altogether.) A saga about the vital importance of staying true to yourself while struggling with the burden of everyday life unfolds as Chekhov eloquently provides insight into resignation, longing, and love.

Maly Drama Theatre began in 1944 in wartime Leningrad (now renamed St. Petersburg), performing in relative obscurity until the mid-1970s, when current artistic director Dodin and other well-known artists joined the company. (Maly in Russian simply means ‘small,’ usually in contrast to some other local theater named bolshoi, or ‘big.’) MDT grew to become an internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning theater famous for challenging theatrical boundaries with imaginative productions by an accomplished ensemble of actors. One of the world's most respected theaters today, MDT was invited to join the Union of European Theatres and is one of only three current troupes to be granted the status of "Theatre of Europe." The company’s comprised of a 56-member ensemble, most of whom were students of Dodin’s at the St. Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Arts. Dodin believes that acting must be a "way of life" and his training methods have made MDT a leader in the development of theater; he often rehearses his actors well into the run of a production. MDT tours extensively throughout Europe, Australia, the Americas, and Southeast Asia with a number of productions, including a 20-year run of Brothers and Sisters by Fyodor Abramov, which won the USSR State Prize and Italy’s Ubu Prize; Alexander Galin’s Stars in the Morning Sky, which garnered Britain's Laurence Olivier Award; and Gaudeamus, inspired by Sergei Kaledin's story "Construction Battalion," which received the French Theatre and Music Critics' Award.

The Maly Drama Theatre's production of Uncle Vanya received two of Russia's prestigious Golden Mask awards for Best Director (Dodin) and Best Actor (Sergey Kuryshev, who plays Baron Tuzenbach in Three Sisters) and the Italian Critics’ Prize for Best Foreign Production. Hailed by Peter Brook as "the finest ensemble in Europe," MDT has found worldwide critical acclaim for this production of Three Sisters, which was nominated for a Golden Mask, Russia’s premier performing arts award, as best drama and Dodin was nominated as best director. (Two MDT actors, Elizaveta Boyarskaya—who didn’t appear at BAM—and Alexander Zavyalov were also nominated for their portrayals of Irina and Chebutikin. The production didn’t win the awards, handed out in Moscow on 16 April.)

Dodin began at the Maly in 1975 after an early career in which he started as a child actor and continued in the 1960s as a freelance director in the Soviet Union and Europe. While still doing guest directing around the continent, Dodin became MDT’s artistic director in 1982. Among his many individual awards and honors are the Olivier Award, the Triumph Russian National Independent Award, St. Petersburg’s Golden Spotlight for Best Director, the Stanislavski Foundation Prize for Excellent Teaching, and a Russian Presidential Award for Excellent Service.

Dodin’s Three Sisters isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s ultimately an astonishing accomplishment. MDT has achieved the reputation as one of the best ensembles in Europe and it’s well-earned. In this production, the rewards were not always easy to wait for, however. Starting at the top, though, let me say that the acting was an absolutely magnificent example of Stanislavskian Realism. (I can’t single out individual performances in this Three Sisters as it was one of the truest ensemble productions I’ve seen in a long time. They all get equal praise and equal responsibility for the show.) Many of the cast were Dodin’s former students at the St. Petersburg Academy and they clearly learned the lessons on building characters and establishing circumstances and relationships well. What seemed clear to me was that the actors really understood the play and the characters and were truly immersed in that world. As Alexis Soloski wrote in the Village Voice, “[T]he characterizations feel remarkably full.” If they were doing that technically somehow, rather than viscerally, then it fooled me. Of course, they've been living with this life and these people for two years now, and since Dodin continues to rehearse his shows even after they open, the company may still be actively exploring. But the final word really has to be that this cast is just a group of superb actors. (As former students of Dodin, they’re not unlike the original MAT company, who were also students of their director.)

I’ll get to the pacing in more detail in a bit, but one of the most salient aspects of this ensemble’s acting style was that it was unrushed. They weren’t slow and they didn’t add in arbitrary pauses; there was no studio-inspired “line-beat-reaction-line” performing. But the actors took the kind of time that would have been natural for a group of people at a country house where they’ve gotten used to having nothing to do. As a spectator used to more animated stage fare (or, worse, TV fare), I had to get accustomed to this more stately and subdued pace, and while it skirted enervating at times, especially early when Dodin was establishing this atmosphere, it became an inherent element of the Prozorov world. (The performance ran three hours and ten minutes with one intermission, and this pace was surely in large part the cause of the extended running time.)

As realistic as the acting was, the directing wasn’t wholly of that style. In fact, there were strong aspects of Expressionism in Dodin’s staging, as he isolated actors or groups of actors and made them remain in place, often with little movement, for minutes at a time, even whole scenes. Even when there were several characters together, they looked out front as if searching the horizon for some sign of life coming to them. This heightened the times when two actors actually connected to one another, making the brief connection seem all that much more significant and momentarily stronger. It wasn’t a casual occurrence, the way other people might just glance at their companions without registering much contact or conveying much meaning in their look. The same was true of touches in Dodin’s staging—and the two passionate kisses he added to Chekhov’s performance text were almost blistering when they occurred in act two. This expressionistic atmosphere was enhanced by the subdued palette employed by Alexander Borovsky in his sets and costumes and the crepuscular lighting designed by Damir Ismagilov.

The sense of isolation was extended to the whole production. There’s no evidence that the village is anywhere near the house or that there are other dwellings in sight. The actors sometimes entered or exited though the auditorium, a long distance for a cross, enhancing the sense that there’s a great distance between the Prozorov house and the rest of the world. When the fire comes in act two, we see nothing, not even a glow in the distance. It’s as if the Prozorov house is on an island cut off from even the sliver of society the backwater town might offer. It’s a kind of anti-Brigadoon.

There was also considerable comedy in Dodin’s untraditional interpretation of Chekhov’s study of desperation and loneliness. (Indeed, the playwright didn’t call his plays “dramas”; he labeled them “comedies,” though they are seldom staged that way.) The director added a pillow fight, a gag beard, a huge shlyapa (fur hat), tuneless and annoying whistling, and a chorus or two of “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay.” The humor just seemed to heighten the bleakness of this Chekhovian world, in the same way as the yellow light from inside the house made the grayness outside seem more oppressive.

The set design may have been the most expressionistic element in the production, or at least the most visibly manifested. Borovsky conceived a bleak façade of the Prozorov house as the dominant component of the setting, with a flat, undecorated, and unplanted terrace before it, with a four-foot-high flight of steps leading down to the ground level. (Many of the scenes are staged on those steps, boxing in the actors for an even greater sense of separation.) The façade reached from the stage floor to the proscenium arch, completely blocking the stage opening upstage of it, but there were windows cut out on two stories and a cut-out doorway under a peaked, wooden canopy. (The doorway seemed narrow and low, as if it were intentionally hard to get in or out of the house.) In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood described the openings as suggestive of “hollowed-out eyes,” but another image came to me: a painting by Edward Hopper, with the mystery and vague ominousness they convey when he depicts someone through a window, often lonely and isolated even when in the company of someone else. Hopper has more color in his paintings than Borovsky used in the Three Sisters set, but the feeling of glimpsing through the windows and not really knowing what’s going on in there was the same for me. Borovsky even also used bright indoor lighting, seen behind the dun-colored façade through the open window holes, to contrast with the dimmer outdoors the way Hopper does in his canvases. (I thought specifically of Nighthawks, Hopper’s 1942 portrayal of three patrons and a waiter in a cafeteria at what seems to be early evening from the shadows outside, assembled near one another but all still alone and separate. Back in 2007, I saw a Hopper exhibit in Washington on which I wrote a brief report and prophetically, I observed that “there's a strange kind of theatricality in Hopper's paintings—not action or drama, but his interiors especially look like stage sets, a kind of set designer's rendering.” Maybe Borovsky thinks so, too.)

The house façade was remarkable for another attribute: it moved. Like one of those shrinking rooms in some horror movies, the flat front of the house moved downstage a few feet on several occasions, notably at the start of the second act, not only increasing its ominous presence, this large, hollow (there’s no interior) prison for the Prozorovs and their circle, but decreasing the small plot of free space down front. If the environment of Dodin and Borovsky’s Three Sisters was claustrophobic when it began, it got even more so until the house receded again near the end of the play. It wasn’t as if the scene was welcoming to start with—the house was drab and dark with those hollow windows, almost like a derelict, and the front terrace is barren and characterless as if there wasn’t even plant life here—but the looming mud-brown façade and the shrinking open space increased the feeling of desolation. It’s no wonder that the Prozorov women yearn so obsessively for life in Moscow, even if it’s a chimerical vision. (We know that, even if they manage to get there, Moscow isn’t such a glittering place when we meet Colonel Vershinin. He’s a Muscovite—and as dull as dishwater.)

It took me several days of thinking about the set design to devise any kind of explanation. I didn’t find it immediately comprehensible while I was watching Three Sisters and, because it was such a prominent part of the production (David Sheward in Back Stage said, “Alexander Borovsky's suggestive set becomes a character itself”), I kept wondering what Dodin and Borovsky’s point was. My attempt here may not be complete or even accurate, but this is what I came up with. Another difficulty (which is not to say either ‘mistake’ or ‘problem,’ as I hope to explain) was the long first scene of the play during which the characters all talk incessantly about not having anything to occupy them, neither work nor social and cultural pursuits. (As if to echo our presidential campaign, one character states, “I have never worked a day in my life!”) As Chekhov’s dialogue keeps reminding us, these people are idle (even the army officers, which struck me as especially noteworthy), and Dodin gave the actors nothing to do, either. (It occurs to me that no one in the play even smoked, an activity actors used to love because there’s so much a character can do with a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. A Russian papirosa is especially loaded with potential business.) Except for going into or coming out of the house, they practically didn’t move about the blasted heath of a front yard.

Diana said she found this boring, though the performance was redeemed later for her, and suggested that Dodin should have had the characters play cards. It’s an unproductive activity, she pointed out, and we know that later Andrey gets into debt from gambling. Playing cards would have given the actors something to do on stage even though it didn’t actually accomplish anything. I agreed that the director’s choice not to have any stage business for the cast during the scene was a chancy decision because it was boring and could alienate the audience irretrievably. It seemed to me, however, that providing any activity like card-playing would subvert the theatrical and dramatic point of enforced inactivity—that the people in this play, as bored as they were, couldn’t even invent something to do. Dodin elected to brave the possibility of losing the audience—this is what I meant by the rewards of the production being sometimes hard to wait for—by choosing not to let the characters do anything at all. If that was a mistake—and I’m not sure, given the evidence of the rest of the production, that it was (a friend to whom I described this dilemma said Dodin “has courage”)—I don’t know what a good solution would be. I’m sure, however, that having the characters play cards is not correct, even though I couldn’t get Diana to understand that in the context of staging, unproductive activity is not equivalent to inactivity. In acting, doing something, even if it accomplishes nothing in the end, isn’t the same as doing nothing.

(By the way, I must note here that the problem wasn’t with the actors. Possibly the hardest thing an actor has to do on stage is to do nothing—actors love business, hence the attraction to smoking—but this company did idleness excellently. They were consistently and thoroughly in the moment, as Stanislavskians say, even if they were just sitting leaning against the walls of the staircase. If there was a problem, it was Dodin’s to solve, not the actors’.)

Now, I said I’d touch on the pacing of the production, so let me get to that. I tried to explain earlier that the actors took their time the way actual people might in the play’s circumstances—an unrelieved lassitude. The three hours of the play was filled with life (even if it was inactive); there were no Pinteresque pauses or long reactions, no attenuated scenes but, in contrast, say, to the Cheek by Jowl performances I’ve seen, no actors speeded up their work to move things along for theatrical reasons (see my report on ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, published on ROT on 4 April). I wouldn’t call it slow as much as deliberate or measured. It wasn’t a manifestation of thoughtfulness or reflection, but simply a slow life, oppressive perhaps but also just unhurried. It’s the country, after all, not fast-paced Moscow. I said also that it took a few minutes to get accustomed to this performance pace, exacerbated as it was by that inactive first scene, but once my rhythm synched up with the actors’, it was intriguing both theatrically (I got to see what the actors were doing because I had time to watch them) and dramatically. It was also stunning to see these actors hold onto their characters, business, inner lives, and all even if they had to maintain them through the longer scenes. If an actor gets to move on from one moment to the next quickly, without dwelling on one for long, there’s less chance of making a mistake, losing sight of something, and if she slips, it’s over fast and she’s on to the next moment. Theater usually moves faster than real life; Three Sisters didn’t—or didn’t seem to. An actor has to be more grounded, more anchored, I think, to move at the speed of life—especially turn-of-the-century provincial life. Like that opening scene, this decision was a risk, too. I think it paid off, and from the audience’s reaction—considerable laughter, especially in act one; a standing ovation; and several extra curtain calls—I wasn’t alone. (The performances were nearly sold out before BAM sent out the announcement—our seats were considered obstructed, though they were really just far away at the rear of the mezzanine—and no one left at intermission as far as I could see. I even checked a bit because I’d hoped we could move down a few rows.)

The press seems to have been just as impressed as I was. Isherwood in the Times called the production “compassionate” and “richly acted” and characterized Dodin’s staging as “a surprisingly fluid mixture of delicacy and bold, almost stylized expressionism.” He described the performances as “emotionally vibrant” and “precisely detailed.” Sheward called Dodin’s “searing production” of Chekhov’s classic “a dreamlike version” in Back Stage. This Three Sisters, said Voice reviewer Soloski, is “a mischievous and lively production,” and in New York magazine, Scott Brown explained, “The company restores an urgent, gut-level anguish to Chekhov’s terrarium of provincial discontent, delusion, and paralysis . . . .” In contrast, Elisabeth Vincentelli called the MDT Three Sisters “stark, slow and grim,” and warned, “It’s a respectable approach, but it requires patience.”

Vincentelli concluded her notice by saying, “This opaque, demanding production isn’t for beginners,” and I’d agree to a certain extent. She means this a pretty stiff warning, but I’d suggest only that MDT’s Three Sisters is a sophisticated enough theater experience that it takes not only open-mindedness and patience, but a palate sufficiently practiced to look beyond flash and, these days, stage effects, and see something we seldom get to see much now: the love and glory of the art of theater itself. This cast isn’t in the entertainment business—they’re in the art business. I don’t mean that as a snobbish panegyric for high theater art, I mean it as a reminder that we sometimes lose sight of where this all started. There’s not a thing wrong with good entertainment. I like The Boyfriend and Once Upon a Mattress. But we get so used to that kind of fare (not to mention the influence on our understanding of theater that comes from television’s 23- or 46-minute attention spans doled out in ten-minute chunks. Dodin and MDT don’t work in that medium. According to Barbara Chai in a Wall Street Journal interview with the director, “[O]ften in theater, you see a mutual tranquility going on” and, Chai says, Dodin believes that “the essence of theater is an inborn ‘intranquility.’” Audiences at Three Sisters need to be prepared to feel insecure—and to relish it for much of the three hours. For that reason, it’s not for beginners. On the other hand, it may be that a true beginner, someone who hasn’t become inured to the 21st-century theater world yet, would experience this Three Sisters differently from one of us old-timers—like Ilya in Never on Sunday, whose ingrained naïveté informed her experience of Greek tragedy. Maybe we need to get back to that, at least a little.

[I don’t normally do this, but because I didn’t single out actors to appraise on my report of MDT’s Three Sisters, I’m going append the cast list here, just to acknowledge this excellent company.

Alexander Bykovsky (Andrey Prozorov), Ekaterina Kleopina (Natasha), Irina Tychinina (Olga), Elena Kalinina (Masha), Ekaterina Tarasova (Irina), Sergey Vlasov (Feodor Kulygin), Igor Chernevich (Alexander Vershinin), Sergey Kuryshev (Nicolai Tuzenbach), Alexander Koshkarev (Vassili Soleny), Alexander Zavyalov (Ivan Chebutikin), Danila Shevchenko (Alexey Fedotik), Stanislav Nikolsky (Vladimir Rode), Sergey Kozyrev (Ferapont), Natalia Akimova (Anfisa), Elena Solomonova (Maid) and Anatoly Kolibyanov (Soldier).]

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