The cast of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov barely fits in the Red Room on West 4th St. There are fourteen actors (14), who represent over a third of the living creatures in the tiny space on top of KGB bar. The play is also crammed full of personalities: the sisters of the title, their brother, his wife, the alcoholic doctor, the Baron, his ill-mannered friend, the school teacher, two soldiers, the elderly female servant, the elderly male servant, and the artilery commander. It’s a lot of emotion to pack into a space the size of a one bedroom apartment.

Like a silvery, slippery sardine is kind of how you feel when you sit down, elbow to elbow with other viewers, and with your knees poking into the actors. (The seats are set in the round, so to speak, on the perimeter of the play space that stretches the length of the floor.) This is not in-your-face, interactive theater like De La Guarda, where the performers dance with the audience during the performance, but I get the feeling that the large company, the director Jess Chayes, and the set designer Nicolas Benacerraf were making a virtue of necessity when they wrapped the audience around the players in an almost uncomfortable embrace.

But create a virtue they did. This production thematizes these complex, multitudinous relationships as a paradox of distance in proximity (or the proximity of distance). The Three Sisters is set in a provincial town in Russia, far from the capital. It’s a small town surrounded by oceans of ignorant peasant farmers, and the only spark of life comes from the presence of imperial soldiers garrisoned nearby. Everyone knows the minutest details of everyone else’s life, but no one really knows each other (or cares). As Sartre said, Hell is other people. Or as he should have said, Hell is the people who have known you since birth.

The opposite effect is also true. The characters are infinitely far from Moscow, intellectually, culturally, and physically. All of them talk of escaping to the capital, though they never do, and they never will. As the timeline of the play stretches across several years, the characters and the audience feel ever more stifled by the claustrophobic and inescapable immediacy of small town life. Moscow is infinitely far away, as is the receding hope that time, a future, will bring them closer to it.

This production simply cannot try to recreate an experience of the original theatrical context. There is (obviously) no proscenium or “fourth wall.” Ms. Chayes gives the characters a handheld video camera so that the characters can film each other or the audience, and live images flicker in monitors around the room. It is a brave choice. Long gone are the days of Brecht, when merely showing the audience the pipes and light fixtures around the stage was enough to break your viewers out of a smug complacence and feeling of easy superiority to the pathos of the players. In other circumstances such a move might come off as precious, a cheap trade on our expectations of Reality TV. The Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night at BAM last year used live video feed cleverly throughout the play, but they were dramatizing a movie about a play. Can we suspend enough disbelief to splice The Three Sisters‘s late 19th century context with our contemporary technophile visual vocabulary?

My answer is yes. The presence of video accentuates the theme of distance in proximity cleverly without making an outré statement or feeling like a gimmick. It plays on our video voyeurism, ingrained by a decade and more of Reality TV, but it doesn’t detract from the shabby, pseudo 19th century feel of the costumes and set furniture. In one scene all the characters go into “the dining room,” a room built at the back of what would be the stage, and the audience can only see them on the monitors, heightening the uncanniness of distance in proximity.

This play can (and will) work without such technical updates, but it cannot work without strong actors, and fortunately Ms. Chayes has been blessed with a very strong cast, particularly Kate Benson as Masha, whose intensity during the scene when her lover is declaring his final adieu is worth the price of admission. Edward Bauer is strong enough as Solyony to make me feel the same disgust Irina feels for him. Alley Scott as Natasha makes a seamless and believable transition from the Russian version of poor white trash to the Russian version of bourgeois nouveau riche white trash. Both of these characters present the encroachment of Modernity and its virtues as a perfect foil for the utopian foolishness of the aristocrats, who believe in true love, a life of the mind, and the nobility of work.

My favorite player and character is Chris Hurt as Cherutykin. You can almost smell stale cigar smoke, newsprint, and vodka in his beard, the smell of despair in the face of mediocrity. The power of the drama comes from watching the characters’ hope dissipate into the horrible realization that there is no paradise “Moscow”, and no future salvation. Theirs is a sickness unto death, a wish for death in the midst of an interminable and grinding life. Even when the unthinkable happens, when the soldiers pull out of their garrison, and all hope of living in a refined society is removed, the sisters must live on.

The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

Assembly Theater Project

The Red Room: 85 East 4th Street 3rd floor

January 20th – 30th, $15 available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at www.horseTRADE.info

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