Sunday, August 14, 2011

Theater Review: Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” at the Chautauqua Institution

The photo I took of the Bratton Theater, the home of the Chautauqua Theater Co. (CTC), only begins to hint at its potential for certain kinds of productions. The theater's setting amid the peaceful upstate New York Chautauqua Institution makes it a natural for intimate productions—and, if the project features highly educated people in places far removed from cities, it practically begs for consideration. A play, in other words, like Anton Chekhov’s 1901 classic Three Sisters.

The CTC promised that this production would be “Chekhov’s masterpiece like you’ve never seen it”—and for once, this wasn’t false advertising. The real question was whether this worked.

On that point, opinions among Chautauquans, either those I spoke with at the time of the performance or found in the Chautauquan Daily, were fiercely divided. Some found this adaptation of the landmark tragicomedy of listlessness and desperation among turn-of-the-century Russian aristocrats not merely unconventional but even brilliant. But at a theater “talk-back” session with audience members that I attended, another customer told a staffer that it reminded her of Cirque de Soleil--and more than a few listeners nodded in agreement.

Unfortunately, there was more than a little truth to what this woman said.

CTC’s production closed nearly a month ago, but I think it’s still important, even after so much time, to offer my reaction. For one thing, the company’s season will run to August 19. (Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is the last show to be staged.) Second, like many theatergoers who come up to this bucolic community in the summer, I feel not only passion but a kind of ownership of what I see. Theater, after all, is not produced in some kind of vacuum, but must take into account audience tastes even as it attempts to challenge and re-mold them.

Once an editor sat me down and identified immediately how copy I had just submitted needed to be changed. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with it grammatically or anything like that,” he observed. “But you have to let the words breathe.” Anything external to the words’ meaning, he elaborated, should be deleted so that the message could stand out more clearly.

The same principle—that simplicity works best—would have done wonders for this production. God knows that the CTC was not without rich resources—not just a script that expertly mixed mirth and melancholy, but also a group of talented actors (many already showing promise in their youth). Especially noteworthy: co-artistic director Vivienne Benesch as the oldest of the eponymous sisters, the middle-aged schoolteacher Olga; Lucas Dixon as Andrey, the sisters' brother, and Andrea Syglowski as their sister-in-law Natasha, gradually morphing into a household harridan.

Moreover, it cannot be said that guest director David Mertes shows contempt for the playwright. Only a handful of words were cut from the Russian great’s original play. Mertes also become famous in the theatrical community for productions he’s staged of Chekhov at his lakeside home in New York State’s Rockland County, which sound at least like labors of love and, perhaps for participants, represent unforgettable experiences.

Unfortunately, Mertes, for all the enthusiasm he brought to this project, forgot to let the play breathe. All kinds of directorial encrustations covered and practically suffocated this production, including:

• Back walls of the set that are designed to look like decommissioned nuclear reactors, for no sensible reason;
• Discordant, heavy-metal electronic music not only at odds with the meditative tone of the play, but more often than not, not containing Russian leitmotifs that might account for their inclusion;
• Unnecessary video monitors at the side of the stage meant to convey characters’ inner states;
• Mattresses pummeled every night as actors, attempting to illustrate their characters’ crushing boredom in the Russian equivalent of the boondocks, kept crashing into them;
• Plastic dolls used to suggest infants;
• A swing with a twentysomething female character pulled higher and higher to the ceiling, until you hope that the actress in the contraption had adequate insurance in case an accident occurred;
• Moonwalking/miming more suitable for a video by Michael Jackson than a Victorian-era Russian;
• Weird, repeated intonations by the actor playing a visiting Russian officer of his dear daughters.

In speaking to other theatergoers, I found that many had, like myself, left at intermission. The CTC rationalized it as the consequence of a long running time (3 ½ hours) that would have left the audience out at 11:30 pm.

The CTC was letting itself off too easily, however. Too many in the audience were leaving not because it was getting late to drive in that country setting, but because they had trouble, in the first 100 minutes before intermission, in making sense of the plot and characters, let alone protecting their eardrums from the periodic assault of the loud, inappropriate music. Without refreshments of any kind at intermission to tide them through what was already a long evening, the choice was practically made for them. They bolted.

To surmount the problem, the CTC offered to seat attendees in the second half of later shows anybody who left at intermission, so long as they held onto their ticket stubs. I took the advice of those who told me the second half would be better than what I saw previously, and they were right. In the end, I was glad I saw the play in its entirety, not only because I like to receive the full value of what I pay for but also because theater professionals should have every opportunity to fulfill their vision and to engage an audience’s attention.

For every attendee who felt this play was a failure, another believed that it rescued Chekhov from talky, dramatically inert productions they had seen. I’ve witnessed such wayward adaptations of Chekhov myself, and it’s a real danger to treat him in such a way that he becomes a museum piece.

But though this problem is apparent, so is the solution: Trust the playwright. Let the audience hear the voice of a writer who is more contemporary than many foolishly question: someone who understood the silly and tragic ways of people in love; a man who saw crimes against nature as clearly as he did crimes of the heart; someone who depicted the wealthy, the middle class and the poor with equal precision, like the doctor he was in real life.

Whenever I visit Chautauqua again, I hope to attend another CTC production. Maybe that time, they’ll balance the passion they brought to Three Sisters with a balanced, savvy appreciation of how much theatrical pyrotechnics on display here truly serve the best interests of a playwright.

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