May 4, 2015 - Russia at the turn of the 20th century teetered on the brink of what would, in a few years, become one of the most dramatic revolutions in history. When Anton Chekov wrote his major plays, even members of the upper class experienced some of the discontent that consumed the lower class. Except that Chekov’s characters enjoyed the luxury of basking in inertia while passionately searching for their next great distraction.
In the current production of Chekov’s The Three Sisters, staged by The Hypocrites, the burden of conveying this discontent falls heavily on the actors. Chekov’s dialogue demands much. On the surface, the characters’ motivations seem deceptively simple. But Chekov’s characters work so hard at not saying what they really want, that in a poorly staged and poorly acted production, performances become maudlin—a trap which The Hypocrites manage to avoid nicely.
The title sisters—Olga, Masha, Irina—stuck in their family’s provincial house, yearn for the Moscow of their youth. They idealize it, they romanticize it, they seem determined to return. Yet they never do return. What stops them? Their present lives seem more than dreary enough. Perhaps they’re distracted by their brother, Andrei, consumed with violin playing and wooing his manipulative fiancé (and later wife), Natasha. The town’s military men also provide plenty of distraction (romantically and otherwise) but, by the end of play, the military gets relocated. So what stops the sisters from returning to Moscow? Themselves. It’s not just easier to dream, it’s safer.
This can be difficult stuff for a modern audience. But Geoff Button’s adaption and direction do much to counter the wooden, archaic dialogue that challenges most productions of the play (though his dialogue sometimes comes too close to modern). Visual tags help. For example, when the awkward Natasha enters in the first act, she finds herself mocked for the bright, lime-green belt she wears. But as she slowly takes over the household, this lime-green begins to dominate the set (even Andrei’s overcoat). Likewise, the awkward stammering turns each sibling displays when confronted with something uncomfortable betrays the common uncertainty that runs through their bloodline.
Some problems do arise, however. The production, staged in the round, has occasional sightline issues. Inevitable, perhaps, but certain key moments get lost for at least some audience members. Also, the burden of maintaining the action for the duration of the production sometimes proves too heavy; at times, moments become uneven.
But this should not take away from the fact that most moments are consistent, convincing and heartfelt. Credit must go to the actors for embracing Chekov’s (and Button’s) words as their own, infusing them with both the underlying meaning and the natural delivery to create conversations so convincing that we feel like eavesdroppers. Standout performances by D’Wayne Taylor as the willingly gullible Kulygin and Joel Ewing as the browbeaten Andrei deserve special mention.
This is not easy stuff to pull off. Chekov’s plays, perhaps more than either of the other fathers of theater realism (Ibsen, Strindberg) often degenerate into dull, tedious theater. But The Hypocrites give us a Three Sisters that sings strongly enough for us to hear Chekov’s carefully composed words.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
(Left to right) Lindsey Gavel, Hilary Williams, Bill McGough, Mary Williamson and Vance Smith in The Hypocrites’ production of Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, directed by Geoff Button (photo by Evan Hanover).