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 V.19 No.20 | May 20 - 26, 2010 

Performance Review

Three Sisters

The Vortex takes on Chekhov

Laura Claggett (Irina), Hannah Kauffmann (Masha) and Wendy Scott (Olga)
Laura Claggett (Irina), Hannah Kauffmann (Masha) and Wendy Scott (Olga)

It seemed like a good idea, a happy confluence of events.

For my final theater review as the Alibi’s arts and literature editor (see Culture Shock for more on this hard-hitting exclusive), I would review The Vortex’s production of Three Sisters, a play by one of my favorite writers of all history of the Earth: Anton Chekhov. It would make my last week at the paper bittersweet, reminding me why I would miss this job, evoking all the opportunity it had afforded me to blather on about art I love. And you would read it and think, My, what a jolly good review; let us hasten to see and appreciate this work, allowing it to thus change our lives. (In my imagination, everyone has either a olde-timey British or Minnesotan accent because those are the only two I can do.)

However, the plan didn’t really work out along those lines, and so I’m coming at this from a different tack. A winding, self-indulgent tack, maybe, but consider this the speech at my retirement party; the dinner’s free, so you might as well listen.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: doctor, author, heartbreaker
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: doctor, author, heartbreaker

Let’s start with Chekhov and Why He Matters. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia, in 1860 to a religious and abusive father, a former serf, who ran a small dry goods store. The six Chekhov children grew up poor and fearful; Anton, the third child, became in many ways the family’s protector. He earned a medical degree to provide financial assistance, all while writing stories for pocket change on the side. Oh, and then he changed literature and theater before dying of tuberculosis at 44. You know, all in a day’s work.

Chekhov’s writing is so remarkable because of its refusal to pontificate or engage in artifice. His stories mimic reality, employing stream-of-consciousness to tell tales of people who are rarely good or bad, but are instead bored or stupid or greedy or hopeful. Like you (and, yes, me). They all want something, but in Chekhov, the story is not how they get want they want, but how they bang into and bruise each other on the way there, a “there” which may have been just a distraction after all.

It’s hard to overstate how radically different his work is from the overtly philosophical concerns of Dostoyevsky or the political agenda of Tolstoy, his predecessors in Russian writing greatness. Chekhov moved literature from the great What If to the great What Is; he chronicled human character rather than prescribing it.

Still here? Good, because now we’re moving on to his plays, which is the whole point of this. Basically, Chekhov did the same thing for the theater. Remember, the world was once a dark, shadowy place, with no televisions and no websites featuring people at Wal-Mart dressed in Spandex (this exists). According to Wikipedia, people used to read, and when they wanted to be entertained, they went to the theater. It was a big deal, and then along comes Chekhov, with his naturalism and use of subtext, and blows this world apart, changing everything.

Remember, the world was once a dark, shadowy place, with no televisions and no websites featuring people at Wal-Mart dressed in Spandex (this exists). According to Wikipedia, people used to read, and when they wanted to be entertained, they went to the theater. It was a big deal, and then along comes Chekhov, with his naturalism and use of subtext, and blows this world apart, changing everything.

But here’s the thing about Chekhov: He’s subtle, and therefore, difficult to get. By “get,” I don’t mean understand. Rather, it’s like the difference between understanding a joke and really getting it. I’ve spent the past six years in an obsessive love affair with the man and his work, reading his stories, his letters, biographies. I’m writing a book of poetry about him. I dramaturged The Seagull. (Dramaturgy is a job in a theatrical production that combines my great love of research with costumes and color-coded binders.)

I say this not to boast—that’s what the Culture Shock column is for—but to underscore that while I invariably understand Chekhov’s work, I don’t always get it, and that’s with a whole-soul effort. And so I have to say, there were many aspects of The Vortex’s production of Three Sisters that didn’t seem to get it, either.

Chekhov saw this play as a comedy, one that views human existence as largely ridiculous, even in the midst of war and murder. But there were choices made in this production that stymied me. One character in particular seemed to have wandered over from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, played in a broad slapstick. Another actor underplayed his small but pivotal role to the point that members of the audience were leaning in to hear him, wondering if what had just happened was important because it didn't seem to be (it was).

To be fair, actors in a Chekhov play are tasked with incredible challenges, such as using realism to approach dialogue translated from the Russian written a century ago. In this version, that task resulted in many of the actors speaking in their normal, modern American voices, which clashed harshly with the content. The default flat nasality of American speech, especially that of anyone who grew up after Valley Girl, is simply unable to treat the dialogue—and the Russian names—with the proper weight and pathos. No one's asking for a Russian accent, but an attempt to open vowels could have made a huge difference.

Peter Diseth as philosopher-soldier Vershinin, however, comes the closest to living the intention of the play. His scenes with Hannah Kauffmann as middle sister Masha are easily the strongest parts of The Vortex's staging, along with a striking set design featuring the playwright’s much beloved trees. It succeeds by suggesting the barriers rather than cluttering the stage unnecessarily.

Maybe I'm biased. Maybe I'm too close to my literary crush to view the play through objective eyes. Though there are real problems with this production, it's reminded me of the importance of having these sorts of conversations about artistic choice and intent, voice and staging, movement and meaning. I haven't acted in almost a decade because it's hard and I'm scared, so I'm aware of the difficulties presented in tackling Chekhov. Even though I found the end result to be wanting, I'm grateful for the undertaking.

Three Sisters

Runs through May 30
The Vortex Theatre
2004 1/2 Central SE
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m.

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