By Bill Hirschman
Let’s get it out there right at the top: Miami Theater Center’s inaugural adult project, a fresh vision of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, is not a smoothly gelling work of art, let alone entertainment. The flaws are considerable, persistent and cannot be discounted.
But they are outweighed by sustained bursts of dazzling imagination, passion, skill, craft, ingenuity and a commitment to creating a unique theatrical experience. MTC should not be paternalistically patted on the head for its ambition, but rewarded with the patronage of audiences yearning to see theater that strives to more than the status quo. With all its missteps, there is little else like this being produced by a large professional house anywhere in the region and probably the state.
MTC wanted to create a Three Sisters that was visceral, relevant, intimate and far more hopeful at the final curtain than other versions. Toward that end, Artistic Director Stephanie Ansin commissioned a fresh translation, worked with triple-threat designer Fernando Calzadilla to develop a line-by-line overhaul of the script, cut the running time by a third, hired the largest cast in its history, rented or designed more than 100 gorgeous costumes, and let loose MTC’s uninhibited instincts for creative expression.
This is not unusual for the Miami Shores troupe (created eight years ago as The PlayGround Theatre) that has developed children’s theater featuring highly stylized staging edging on Cirque du Soleil territory. It integrates stunning set designs, lush soundscapes, evocative lighting and an avant garde rehearsal ethic that involves weeks of warm-ups, movement classes and theater games. All of this is evident every painstaking brushstroke of this hand-made production in which characters pull the audience out to dance, Russians circa 1900 croon Gershwin to each other and the entire audience sits on the stage on risers that move to face the changing scenery.
What they have ended up with is an uneven yet impressive production that runs the gamut from a moving emotional epic to nearly risible melodrama.
The final moments are emblematic of MTC’s reach for something beyond the expected. In Chekhov’s script, everyone’s life has turned to dross and they utter half-hearted platitudes about the future. But MTC has tweaked the script to underscore their enduring, indomitable hope and then tacked on a beautifully-staged coda in which the cast steps forward individually and then en masse to sing an elegiac anthem of optimism composed by MTC’s Luciano Stazzone with stirring lyrics by Ansin.
Three Sisters focuses on the wealthy Prozorov family from Moscow consigned to a provincial town where their boredom is not quite relieved by visits from equally-bored officers from a nearby artillery battery. With little to do and uninspired by their dilettante jobs, the sisters long for a more fulfilling life, exemplified by their frequent pining for a return to the vibrant capital city. Almost everyone in this play is a dreamer already stuck in or approaching a dead end. This forces them to seek a meaning to life with a quiet desperation. Over the four years of the play, their stultifying way of life collapses in on itself, forcing this dying privileged class to face a cold world. Chekhov was 17 years more prescient than he knew.
The 16 characters create a web of prickly relationships, affairs and unrequited loves that took Chekhov and most productions well over three hours to portray. Ansin and Calzadilla wanted a more palatable 120-minute offering for the 21st Century’s ADD audience, so they pared away a lot of dialogue, but no major plot points. This works pretty well, but the audience must pay close attention because key elements setting up situations or explaining characters’ motivations fly past in a single sentence. Spend five minutes on the Internet reading a synopsis before you come to the theater
To seem timeless and relevant, the creative staff has jettisoned a devotion to a consistent era or place. MTC does use Chekhov’s time and locale, but the cast is unapologetically multi-ethnic, dialogue includes such colloquialisms as “What’s up?” and the soundtrack encompasses balalaikas and the 1949 ditty “A – You’re Adorable.” Most of these touches stick out like self-conscious even self-indulgent artistic fillips, but they do advance Ansin and Calzadilla’s vision of erasing the barriers between their audience in 2012 and the play written for patrons in 1900.
The staging is both inspired and annoying, especially the location of the audience. One tactic to increase the intimacy was to build bleachers that only hold 49 patrons and place them on MTC’s vast stage. The risers then pivot toward different parts of the stage where different parts of the Prozorov household have been created. In addition, a large expanse of deck was built out from the lip of the stage into the first rows of seats in the auditorium to represent the garden for the last scene of the play.
This technique works marvelously in the third act and for much of the first two. Unfortunately, the intimacy vanishes in that last scene played out on the huge deck, located many yards from the audience. In fact, some characters make their entrances from the back of the auditorium, often unseen.
Yet Ansin is nothing if not a gifted visual director with a passion for precision timing. She moves her cast around the massive stage with a swirling fluidity as well as posing them in meaningful tableaus. The pacing is stately but not sluggish. She works deftly in tandem with Calzadilla’s dexterity painting with light, such as a dance between married lovers in the half-light emanating from an open door. And there is the silhouette on the wall of two sisters clutching each other in a moment of woe. There are scores of such moments.
Still, so much doesn’t work. In the first act, conversations occur on the thrust so far to the left of the risers that most audience members can’t see them.
A maid scurries like a frightened mouse to answer door bells. She zips out of a door at the far back of the set, runs the entire length of the set to the left, around the edge of a long dining table, then back the entire length to the right to get to the front door of the house. It was cute the first four times she did it. Then it felt goofy and then downright distracting.
Occasionally, Ansin and Calzadilla dreamt up a superb concept that became a straitjacket in its repetition, for instance, what Ansin calls “the bubble.” Any time a character speaks their unvarnished thoughts, they race – and I mean race, with feet echoing off the wooden floor — from wherever they are in the cavernous stage and try to reach a bright spotlight directly in front of the audience in the risers. At that point, they directly address the audience with their innermost musings like the characters in O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. Pounding hoofs aside, most of these work well to reveal the inner turmoil and passion beneath the banal drawing room conversations. The problem is actors usually must dash way downstage to do it every single time they make a wry aside, every single time, even if it was for one sentence that believably could have been a muttered aside in the context of the scene. It became the tail wagging the dog.
Yet, being a few feet from a character baring their soul in a merciless spotlight results in some excoriating moments. One of the best is Howard Elfman’s portrayal of a recovering alcoholic doctor who has fallen off the wagon and is literally shaking with self-disgust in front of us after realizing that his withered medical skills have killed a patient. Or watching a cuckolded husband played by Christian T. Chan tell himself that he’s happy when we can see his tortured face belie his self-deception.
Ansin and the company dutifully excavate subtext because very few people say what they mean. When one sister’s suitor nobly played by Troy Davidson goes off to fight a duel, he says something like “I haven’t had any coffee today” which perfectly communicates “My darling, if I never see you again, know that I love you.”
Before talking about the acting, it’s crucial to examine the script. MTC commissioned a literal translation from Ansin’s sister-in-law. Then Ansin and Calzadilla analyzed it line-by-line with five other adaptations and finally synthesized another with their specific voice. Most versions are cursed by a stiff formal syntax that reflects the calcified society. This new version labors to scrape away some of those barnacles, but many proved ineradicable. These characters pass the hours holding forth on their philosophies of life and their visions of the distant future as if they were in a late night dorm debate. Everyone is in serious danger of seeming pompous and self-involved. Worse, Chekhov has these people living inside in their own worlds, speaking their thoughts as if no one else was there. That results in a rocky road of disjointed non sequiturs that are hard for an audience to track.
So, given the mannered and pretentious pronouncements that every character is saddled with, most of the actors do a reasonable job injecting a measure of relatable humanity into this rarefied group of well-meaning one-percenters.
The most skilled at creating a recognizable human being is Wayne LeGette, as the world-weary battery commander Vershinin, married to a mentally-unbalanced woman but who has fallen in love with one of the sisters. With his posture, warm baritone and exchanged glances with other characters, LeGette limns a cultured, gracious man who optimistically dreams of a society in which a tiny minority of intelligent and sensitive souls like the sisters will multiply until they dominate the world.
The actresses playing the sisters (who must have had different mothers) are unassailable if not riveting. The tall willowy Yevgeniya Kats delivers the sense of Olga’s hatred of her job as a schoolmarm although the streamlined script leaves Olga more of a cipher than her siblings. Diana Garle is engaging as a Hispanic Irina who initially is suffused with the ecstatic enthusiasm of youth but whose spirit is chastened by the erosion of time. Best among equals is Emily Batsford whose grim-faced Masha has been disillusioned by her marriage until Vershinin’s forbidden love elevates and then destroys her.
Besides Elfman and Davidson delivering some of their best work, give a nod to Chan, Nikki Lowe as the hoyden turned harridan Natasha, Art Garcia’s social misfit Solyony, Linda Bernhard who makes the most of her tiny role as the elderly servant Anfisa, Theo Reyna as the ineffectual wastrel brother Andrei, Steve Gladstone in a comic turn as the befuddled messenger, Ana Mendez as the scurrying maid, plus Jeremiah Musgrove and Ted Cava as other soldiers.
MTC prides itself on a first-string creative team who would have taken home a shelf of Carbonells before now if they had been eligible for children’s theater. Any reference to Ansin and Calzadilla is really shorthand for this highly collaborative group of talents including choreography by Octavio Campos, stage management by Naomi Zapata and sound by Stazzone, plus a significant array of tech folks and crew members.
You have to applaud MTC simply for tackling Chekhov; no major professional company in recent memory in South Florida has taken on his complex characters, sprawling casts and lines like “The time will come when we will understand the meaning of life and why we suffer.”
But shed no tears for this production. MTC’s Three Sisters is a celebration of theatrical imagination that needs no excuses.
Three Sisters plays through Dec. 22 at Miami Theater Center (the former PlayGround Theatre), 9806 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. Performances during the week for high school students. For the general public, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sundays. No performances Nov. 23-25. Tickets $35. For information, call (305) 751-9550 or visit www.mtcmiami.org/event/three-sisters/#more-13472. Everyone is seated at one time; no late seating.
To read a feature on the making of Three Sisters, click here.
To see videos about the new production, click here.
To read an extensive profile of The PlayGround Theatre in American Theatre magazine, click here.