“You may have seen ‘inspired’ productions, ‘competent’ productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov’s talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul onstage.” This from a letter written by Buddy Glass, J.D. Salinger’s familiar and demon, to his brother, Zooey (in the story of the same name), warning him against a career in the theater. Here, Buddy is speaking about Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but the playwright’s canon is marked by a characteristically difficult, entangled sensitivity, and so any production of his work is similarly burdened by the futility of a seamless staging, Three Sisters perhaps more than any other, a play described by Lev Dodin, director of the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s production of Three Sisters now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater, as “one of [Chekhov’s] most complex and maybe one of the most unharmonious stories” (from his introductory essay in the BAMbill). At its heart a family drama of disappointments – the promise of youth squandered in exile, the agony of settling, and the anxiety of time lost languishing in dreams – Three Sisters is devastating, radiant work more easily muddled than clarified when witnessed on stage. Thankfully Lev Dodin and his uniformly talented cast have managed a reverent, incisive offering that matches Chekhov’s text, if not nuance for nuance, with an equally generous spirit at least.
Set in rural Russia eleven years after the family’s exile from Moscow, the play follows the fate of the Prozorov children, the three sisters – Irina (played by Ekaterina Tarasova), the youngest at twenty, reserved, romantic and aching for a hometown that in her imagination promises to fulfill every waylaid dream, Masha (Elena Kalinina), twenty-five, bored in her marriage, bored in her town and bearing her boredom poorly, given to recklessness, to reciting poetry out loud in company, to spinning in place, laughing at tragedy and taking impetuous exits, and Olga (Irina Tychinina), the eldest at a spinsterly twenty-eight, already resigned to her fate, to her tiring job as a schoolteacher and her lonely, fruitless aging – and their only brother, Andrey (Alexander Bykovsky), an aspiring professor whose star is destined for humbler flight. Soldiers, boarders, servants, lovers and friends circle around these four like satellites – some arbitrarily drifting near, others drawn in by the gravity of one or another of them but bound to float off eventually, pulled away by duty of death.
Tychinina Olga is the most straightforward of the sisters, which is not to say that she is the least complex, rather that the natural shape of her spirit has been crushed by the weight of unhappiness into the mold the town has cast for her. She is a schoolteacher destined to be headmistress, a job she does not want but will accept because — simply because: what is liquid still in her runs along the path of least resistance. She has no husband, no family of her own, and thus no autonomous fate. However, Olga is the surest of the sisters, sure in her misery, certain of what she can and cannot have, and is the strongest because of the assuredness. What little energy she has left she expends on others, personally taking on the house servant when she is set to be fired by Andrey’s wife, ministering weakly to her distraught sisters. Tychinina’s Olga grows heavier, more convinced not just of her own unhappiness but of the inevitability of everyone’s unhappiness, yet she never lets on to others: it is as though in letting go of her dreams entirely, she was able to preserve a modicum of sanity.
Tarasova’s Irina, initially the gentlest of the bunch, is hardened by the dawning realization that the family’s return to Moscow is to be but another frustrated dream. Buoyed early on by fantasies of urbane love and a life of honest work, she rebuffs the advances of several suitors, notably her friend the baron (Sergey Kuryshev), an admirable but uninspiring figure whose own visions of love and honest labor find nothing but bitter or half-hearted daylight. Irina’s slow deadening is carried with precision: whether curled into silence or crying in a hopeless rage, the audience rides her spirit down as if it were a deflating balloon, anticipating but never relishing the inevitable crash. The baron too cuts a solid and sympathetic figure – a man who thinks and loves as well as he can, even if he fails to convince the world of his point.
Kalinina’s Masha brims with anxiety over her narrowly circumscribed life: she does not sing, she screams, caged bird though she is. Married at eighteen to Feodor (Sergey Vlasov), a local high school teacher, the union is quickly soured by Masha’s frustration at the tedium of town life and the knowledge, somehow elusive to the bridge before the marriage, that Feodor is a boring, trivial man. Flouting her husband in public – disparaging him, ignoring him – but never suffering for it (Feodor is never anything but slavishly devoted to Masha, a position alternately touching and pathetic, saved from the comic by Vlasov’s convicted performance), Masha, personally tormented as she is, is ripe for some interpersonal torment as well, and so it’s no surprise when she throws herself headlong, with no regard for appearances, into an affair with Vershinin (Igor Chernevich), a lieutenant-colonel in charge of a locally stationed battery.
The affair is doomed, of course: Vershinin’s battery is restationed; Masha’s anxiety overbrims, and she cracks up into inconsolable hysterics, tended to by her ever-devoted husband. Kalinina establishes a taut through-line of unhappiness, like the string of an off-tune piano, plucked madly at first as Marina laughs and sings and spins and snapped, at last, when the morsel of happiness she’s snatched for herself slips away. Vershinin, an unwitting prophet of impossibility, partial to preaching about the future, some two-hundred years from now, which he casts, invariably, in a utopian blush, seems to accuse the present in his attempts to justify it; “…people will look at our present manner of life with horror and derision, and everything of today will seem awkward and heavy, and very strange and uncomfortable,” but, he swears, we strive today so that others may be happy in the future, an endorsement that rings hollow in the middle of all this misery.
Her brother Andrey faces the other side of a similar situation, as his wife Natasha (Ekaterina Kleopina) flagrantly cuckolds him. Bykovsky presents Andrey as someone too embarrassed to acknowledge his own situation, living in a state of agitated denial, quick to yell when questioned about his life and just as quick to smooth over the situation, lest the topic of his many failures be openly discussed.
The family of four live together behind the front façade of a weathered country home designed by Alexander Borovsky. The large, glassless windows feel more natural than voyeuristic, as if we are separated from this family by a few slats of wood. Special acclamation must be paid the intuitive and intimate lighting design by Damir Ismagilov, who conjures up a summer gloaming as well as country candlelight to dance around a dining room.
No doubt the effect of reading superscripts serves to marry this production to the text, but little more could be asked of the magnificent cast. Chekhov’s characters are like sprung clockwork – intricate pieces everywhere, scattered and insensible to anyone but the most skilled horologist. Who can refashion the broken cogs to make the machine whirl again? Who studies the soul? Everyone, Chekhov would have us believe, even – every once in a while – a good set of actors.