Now that Classic Stage’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters has opened, I feel free to review the preview performance that I saw last week. There’s a risk, of course, in doing so, as the director, Austin Pendleton, can change things – even substantial things – about a production right up to opening night. So it’s possible I’m reviewing a show you can’t see, because the director didn’t like it enough to let you see it.
But I doubt it.
Three Sisters is a delicate and complex drama, and it requires a cast and a director of exceptional sensitivity to bring it fully to life. The first production I ever saw was a student production I saw while at college, which was done in the deadly histrionic style that always seems to be the first refuge for those who don’t know what Chekhov is about. For years after, whenever we faced any obstacle in life, my ex-roommate and I would declaim, theatrically, “we shall never to Moscow – I see that now!” in imitation of that production’s Irina.
Pendleton’s Three Sisters could not be farther removed from that kind of production. First of all, Pendleton has used a somewhat modernized translation by Paul Schmidt. Not everybody will like the sound of it; for example, the second act opens with Natasha shouting, “Andy – whatcha doin’?” But “Andryusha” is a diminutive for Andrei. “Andy” is an entirely appropriate English equivalent. Marin Ireland’s Natasha is an instantly recognizable modern type – I’ve met her walking around Park Slope many times, pushing her double stroller; she probably has a column in the Brooklyn Paper – but that’s due not only to Ireland’s excellent acting but to a text that allows her, and us, to see that type. It brings us close, and does so without doing violence to the original social context.
Even more important in bringing us in is the staging. CSC’s theatre is quite small, and the audience surrounds the almost square stage on three sides. Pendleton and Walt Spangler, the designer, have eliminated any barrier between audience and performance space, but not through tricks like having the cast run out into the audience. They have simply staged the play on the floor, and the cast ranges around that space, holding conference, sometimes, right in front of audience members. The sensation is not of being dragged onstage and into a play (which is more commonly the effect of breaking that barrier), but, because the actors never betray a hint that they know of our presence, even when standing right in front of us, of eavesdropping on real life, an effect I’ve last seen achieved so well with Chekhov in the wonderful film, “Vanya on 42nd Street.”
Third, two key roles are played against what I have always thought of as their type, in ways that I found deepened (and darkened) the play immensely. These are the two characters whom everyone in the play seems to feel warm towards: Irina and Vershinin.
Irina is usually seen as the hopeful one, the one who still believes in going to Moscow and thereby changing their lives for the better; the sweet, beautiful one who all the men, young and old, dote on; the innocent one who, ultimately, is willing to sacrifice her innocence to settle for a “good man,” the Baron Tuzenbach, even though she doesn’t love him. Vershinin, meanwhile, is the one interesting man in town, who charms Masha and rouses her from the bitter torpor of her life with the schoolteacher, Kulygin. No one seems to blame him or Masha for their relationship, as if they know that they really do belong together and, in a different world, would be together.
But none of this is true. Irina at the outset is a spoiled child. She is bored by work and bored by play. She takes the attentions of her many admirers for granted. And by the end, she is cruel enough to marry him telling him that she doesn’t love him, can’t love him, is only marrying him because she has given up the idea of love entirely, never having felt the emotion. Tuzenbach talked earlier in the play of wishing he could sacrifice himself for her. He now goes to his death in a duel with Solyony – he is trying his last gambit to make her love him. In a very real sense, though she doesn’t realize this, she sends him to his death. And when she finds out she says – “I knew it!” But what did she know? Does she know that he did it for her? I somehow think not – or, perhaps, she really doesn’t care that much, except inasmuch as his death has, apparently, sealed her fate. She’s a terrifyingly self-involved creature.
Incidentally, returning to the translation, look at the difference here between Irina’s response to Tuzenbach when he speaks of her lack of love for him. Here’s good-old Constance Garnett:
TUZENBACH: There’s only one thing, one thing: you don’t love me!
IRINA. That’s not in my power! I’ll be your wife and be faithful and obedient …
And now here’s Paul Schmidt:
TUZENBACH: There’s just one thing wrong: you don’t love me.
IRINA: I can’t. I’ll be your wife, I’ll … I’ll do what I’m supposed to do …
Garnett’s version is decorous; Schmidt’s is brutal. With Schmidt, we know what Irina is talking about. She’s saying she’ll sleep with him even though she doesn’t love him. With Garnett, we might not understand that’s what she’s talking about. And that is, most fundamentally, what she’s talking about – what it means to say, “I’ll marry you even though I don’t love you.” Juliet Rylance’s reading of the line was absolutely flawless – it sent chills down my spine. But you can’t have that thrown in your face and still feel the same way about Irina. You can feel terror and pity that she has come to this. But you can’t think she’s simply a sweet girl ruined by circumstance.
And now, Vershinin. The last Three Sisters I saw, at Stratford a couple of years ago, Vershinin was played by smolderingly by Tom McCamus. One certainly understood why Masha would fall for this man. But what if Vershinin wasn’t all that? I mean, is he? Is there any evidence in the play that he’s anything more than a guy in uniform – an exceptional heel, in fact, who talks of nothing but his love for his daughters and can’t get away from them quickly enough, who talks nothing but shallow nonsense and from all evidence has played this same game with other women from town to town (or do you really think his wife was born mad?). From Trigorin in The Seagull to David in “An Education” to this current role, Peter Sarsgaard has been making a habit lately of playing unlikely seducers, men who are obviously phony and weak but who, nonetheless, successfully win the hearts of absolutely smitten and gorgeous younger women. When his Vershinin pulls Masha off his legs so he can leave for his regiment, the whole performance comes into horrible focus. He knew this scene was in their future, from the beginning. He only hoped he could avoid actually facing it.
I highlight these two performances, but very nearly every performance brought me some new insight into the character, in large ways and small. Two small examples. I have always, in the past, seen Solyony go off to his duel grimly determined to kill the Baron. Not so Anson Mount in this production. He heads off convinced he is going to his own death. Why does he think he will die, he who has survived two duels already, facing off against a man so obviously incapable of taking human life as the Baron? Well, Solyony, we are told, thinks he’s “a new Lermontov.” That sounds like nothing but a bit of characterization, a way of telling us that he has an absurdly theatrical sense of self, which he does. But it’s also foreshadowing: Lermontov died fighting his third duel. Solyony goes to his third duel expecting a similar fate. It’s a wonderful choice on Mount’s part, a sign of real close reading of the text, but even if you have no idea that’s why he’s made the choice it plays beautifully, deepening our pity for a character easy to dismiss as a buffoon.
And the second, another easy-to-dismiss character. Kulygin, Masha’s long-suffering husband, spends the first half of the play behaving like a pedantic ass, so that we can forgive Masha her affair with Vershinin. Then, at the end of the play, he takes her back, makes no recriminations, makes her laugh through her tears by doing an impression of a colleague with a false beard. And now, seeing his strength of character and the depth of his love, we repent of our earlier contempt for him.
But in between, in Act III, he has a scene with Olga. A chunk of the town has been destroyed by fire, and everybody has been up late dealing with the situation. Kulygin has spent much of the time looking for Masha, who seems always to have just left whenever he arrives. Finally, he sits down next to Olga on her bed, and declares: if he hadn’t married Masha, he’d have married her.
The last time I saw the play, the moment was played with bitter humor. Olga very nearly slapped herself on the forehead – she would have been thrilled to marry him; did he really not see that back when he married Masha? Is he that much of an idiot that he can just say something like that? But in this production, Kulygin simply lays his head in Olga’s lap, and she plays a bit with his hair, and they sit there like this. He hasn’t said anything they both haven’t thought before, and they both know there’s nothing to be done. It’s a beautiful moment, and a beautiful choice to use that moment to bring these two characters – along with the Baron, the most purely wholesome characters in the play – closer together rather than pushing them apart. Just lovely.
Incidentally, Act III makes magnificent use of the stage as well. The centerpiece of the first two acts is an enormous table – laid with a birthday dinner and flowers for Irina in Act I, bare in Act II, but in both cases dominating the playing space. Act III is set entirely in Olga and Irina’s room, and one problem is making the stage feel adequately claustrophobic – the progression of the play has Natasha squeezing the family into narrower and narrower quarters until they are finally expelled from the house entirely (Act IV takes place in the yard). Well, Pendleton and Spangler’s solution to this problem is to turn the table into the stage – the room is set up on top of the table after the first intermission, and apart from entrances and exits Act III plays out entirely on this cramped little stage-upon-a-stage. It’s a perfect choice in every way.
I could go on, but I won’t. I had fears going in that I was going to see The Maggie Gyllenhaal show, with a spotlight on Masha. If anything, I got the opposite. Gyllenhaal gives a fine performance, but so does everybody, and you would never know that she was a movie star from the way the production treats her. (Even her first entrance puts her in a corner.) This is a marvelous production that brings a difficult vibrantly to life. Go see it.