If you asked anyone to pick the one prop they’d need to perform Chekov’s The Three Sisters, it probably wouldn’t be the stray fork that briefly vexes Natasha at the close of the play. But while Daniel Fish seems to have that utensil on his mind in Who Left This Fork Here, his riff on Chekov’s women is not so much focused on objects as it is concerned with the meanings they project. A fork is a fork is a fork; that is until it simply isn’t one anymore.
Take cake, for example. There isn’t any in The Three Sisters (well, again, only for a moment) but a dozen of them are lined up downstage at Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space as the audience files in. They’re the kind of thickly frosted, party-sized sheet cakes that you find at the bakery counter at Food Emporium, ready to wear your personalized message of celebration, and they stare back at us anonymously as we wait for the show to start. Of course, seen like that, they aren’t just cakes anymore; they’re blank slates on which we can project memories of birthdays, graduations and more. The show hasn’t started yet but we’re already primed for what will follow. And boy, will those cakes go places.
Fish has a genial talent for this kind of telltale shorthand. In A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Under the Radar 2015), he used tennis balls as a metaphor for David Foster Wallace’s rapid-fire mental agility. In Who Left This Fork Here, Fish, working with designer Jim Findlay (Dream Of The Red Chamber, 2014), turns to Chekov’s deeply layered psychological portrait of Irina, Masha and Olga. It’s not clear in the hour-long performance how they decided on cake as their single prop device but it turns out to be a pretty effective one.
After all, what is at stake in The Three Sisters except one of the biggest cake-based celebrations that there is: a wedding. Though it’s not part of the staged action, Andrey’s wedding with Natasha seals the unhappy fates of his three sisters, who are all in various states of failed or never realized marriages.
Fish and Findlay have decontextualized Chekov’s play to near total abstraction. The only recognizable elements are three female performers in different stages of life and a few quotations, two of which (Irina waking to her birthday, Vershinin’s desire to live his life a second time) loop insistently before stopping abruptly. The three women seem oblivious to these and to each other; they toil in isolation throughout the performance. The youngest of the three (Auden Thornton) who, if we didn’t suspect it already, will eventually reveal herself to be Irina, runs the length of the stage, barefoot, for the entire hour. The oldest actress (and, therefore, the one most likely to be Olga) is Judith Roberts, who sets her age-lined, still beautiful and wonderfully expressive face before a video camera, which she stares into, registering the subtlest emotions of surprise, happiness and concern, for the rest of the show.
The third actress and the de facto Masha (Tina Benko, terrifically intense and fragile at the same time), is the irresistible focus of our attention. Like Thornton, and in stark contrast to Roberts’ immobility, she is in constant movement. First, she sets large squares of marley flooring into place in one corner of the stage, and then moves them progressively across the space in interlocking patterns like a Rubik’s cube. Then, she places the cakes in various locations around the stage, Next she sets up a work surface with a plywood board on aluminum horses and cuts a large hole through it with a power saw. When she starts to pile the cakes in a pyramid over the hole and changes into a sparkly leotard, you know a jumping-out-of-a-cake number is imminent. And since everything is on a loop here, it will replay again and again.
Throughout these performances, Findlay and lighting designer Christopher Kuhl arrange fluo tube lighting and video cameras around the room, creating new visual spaces. Video of other faces reciting the two play excerpts is projected onto different surfaces. Changes in lighting dramatically alter our vision of Robert’s face. Benko is filmed cowering under the table in a mess of crumbs and frosting. Only Thornton is spared any close ups. In fact, we mostly forget her presence but the sound of her pounding gait functions like the ticking hands of a clock: the performance ends when Thornton, doubled over and gasping, simply can’t take another step.
Who Left This Fork Here will certainly frustrate anyone hoping to see and hear Chekov, but Fish’s condensation of the sisters’ social dilemmas and resulting psychological states seems meant to be felt above all. The excerpts can only be interpreted ironically, of course; the hopes expressed early in the play are dashed and discarded eventually. Thornton, Roberts and Benko are touchingly naked in their roles, such as they are, with no text to rely on, just a state of mind to convey, from Irina’s headlong flight from a cruel destiny, to Olga’s reluctant acceptance of hers to Masha’s irrepressible vitality that wants, against all odds, to be the tempting object of Vershinin’s desire. Fish and Findlay’s careful use of video also introduces some contemporary cinema tropes into Chekov’s 19th century Russia. Benko’s smeared face looks fearfully just beyond the camera’s frame in what could be a scene from any action or horror movie. In a contemporary world of many fears, all exploited by Hollywood, what are we to believe she sees and what makes her cringe?
Just like Natasha’s question about the fork is never answered, the sisters’ silent pleas are rhetorical exercises, with no satisfying solution, something Fish’s experiment helps us understand with new clarity. I found it an invigoratingly contemporary celebration of Chekov’s masterpiece but was relieved no one passed around the cake.