Three Sisters

Multiplied by Itself

Review of The Square Root of Three Sisters, at International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven ended on Saturday, and I closed out the events with a viewing of The Square Root of Three Sisters, conceived, written, and directed by Dmitry Krymov and created and performed by Dmitry Krymov Lab and the Yale School of Drama. It was not only the end of the show’s run, and of the festival, but a last hurrah—and first post-graduation assignment—for a number of fine actors who graduated this May from the Yale School of Drama.

To begin with: Square Root is not a play in any conventional sense. It’s theater, conceived as an event that takes place with, as Krymov says, “the seams showing.” Before the show even begins, the cast is on hand, organizing cardboard rectangles to create the playing space, all while the Iseman theater’s workroom, with arrays of tools and implements, is on display.

The performers play actors as well as characters in the piece, which uses props and costumes sparingly. The purpose of the approach, it seems to me, is to let us—and that “us” includes actors, director, crew, the Lab, and viewers—look at Chekov’s landmark classic Three Sisters from a variety of perspectives, never forgetting that the process of theater alters and adapts whatever the playwright creates.

So it’s key to the vision of this work that a playwright be present. Krymov imports Kolya Trigorin, the sensitive and avant-garde playwright from Chekov’s The Seagull, to open the show. Aubie Merrylees, who has brilliant comic timing, is well-chosen to play the nervy, breathless Trigorin, eager to get everything just right—including paper rolls to be adorned by the cast with strips of black tape to create white birches. As he literally sets the scene—with cardboard boxes suggesting different places referred to in Three Sisters—and bosses his fellow cast-members, a minor error gets corrected by a painfully loud, distorted and autocratic voice. In that moment, Krymov references the power play of theater. The director calls the shots. The actors—and Chekov himself, to the extent that Trigorin is a figure for him—must submit.

With that said, there’s a further aspect that comes to light as Trigorin, and later, the actors themselves, narrate the backstory of Chekov’s characters. Three Sisters and its world come to seem a real world where fiction has created not characters, but actual people. To deviate from which sister—Olga, the spinster/teacher; Masha, the unhappily married wife; Irina, the youngest who might yet marry—is which, or who the suitors are, would be to alter the unalterable. The characters in Three Sisters seem folkloric in so indelibly stamping the imaginations of generations of theater-goers, especially but not only in Russia.

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

What can we still learn about them? What will Krymov’s approach show us? Many things, indeed. It’s a breath-taking show in its variety and imaginative flights, in its use of technical features—such as the beautiful moment when the cast discovers inside boxes lit from within the military overcoats that are their costumes, each with a character-determining tag—and even “YouTube” videos. And so much depends on the routines each actor performs in turn, routines that establish for us not only a particular Chekovian character but also, to some extent, the actor’s relation to that character.

All begin seated around a large wooden work table, and that table becomes a center, a stage upon the stage, where the incredibly ripe passions of the work display themselves. Early on, in a dialogue both charming and freaky, a teapot moves about in space between would-be lovers, the relentlessly intense Vershinin (Niall Powderly) and dour in black Masha (Annelise Lawson), suggesting not only the force of their attraction but the gentility that keeps such passions at bay. Later, in stalwart Olga’s turn, Shaunette Renée Wilson’s insistent iteration “I don’t need to be loved” alternates with a distracted insistence on the mundane: “this is a fork, this is a cup,” and so on, while constantly shifting the props about on the table with increasing violence. The seething resentment at the heart of Olga, controlled by all the force of her personality, couldn’t be more powerfully rendered. Then there’s Irina (Melanie Field). Hiding beneath the table, she’s lured out by her comically timid suitor Tuzenbach (Bradley James Tejeda) and hen-pecked brother Andrey (Kevin Hourigan) with a promise to sing the songs her mother loved. Soon music begins to play and Irina, like a cat to catnip, emerges to belt out “Someone to Watch Over Me,” with Field evoking the sheer joy of a child in performance.

Every character gets a turn—including Julian Elijah Martinez’s dance like a constricted flame to evince the self-love and self-loathing of Solyony “who thinks he looks like” the poet Lermontov, and Annie Hägg’s table-top flouncing as Natasha, the preening and pathetically insecure wife of Andrey. At times the routines feel like improv, at other times like a physical manifestation of all that words will never convey, and even a bit like an audition for the pleasure of that ultimate watcher.

Late in the show, as a brigade of soldiers cart off all the possessions the Prozorov sisters hold dear, the table becomes a life-raft the sisters cling to and the base for the automaton they become. Along the way, the autocratic voice—which by now has begun to feel like a call to emergency evacuation or of military invasion—demands “give me a new Masha.” There follows a comical scene, nonplussing enough for anyone who hasn’t made the cut, in which Hägg, formerly Natasha, now shrugs her way into the role of the most dramatic of the Prozorov sisters while Lawson, stricken, pouts. Vershinin, however, won’t make the switch and still pines for Lawson as Masha. At this point, it’s not simply a question of how a character is conveyed by a performer, but how a performer takes over a character.

Shaunette Renée Wilson

Shaunette Renée Wilson

So, when Wilson is replaced—by “that writer”—as Olga, she resists on the basis of her stature and commitment. Both of which, we sense, is her downfall. The very commitment of actor to character must be undermined. This isn’t about personalities, it’s about art aligning with the mailed fist of history. All are expendable, all are replaceable. And anyone can inhabit our treasured myths of tradition, or join the plaintive voices of the Three Sisters figurine on perpetual exhibit upon its pedestal.

A show for those who love their theater freewheeling and speculative, The Square Root of Three Sisters makes us wonder why we feel the need to have people dress up and pretend to be other, non-existent people—in other words, it makes you wonder a lot about theater and performance. In putting onstage the interplay of concepts of character, of actors as characters, and of actors as individuals, Square Root kicks against the text while scripting dissent and suppression, and manifesting an abundance of some intangible thing we lamely call “theater magic.”


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
The Square Root of 3 Sisters
World Premiere
Conceived, written, and directed by Dmitry Krymov, based on plays by Anton Chekov
Created and performed by Dmitry Krymov Lab & Yale School of Drama

Creative Team: Choreographer: Emily Coates; Performance Coach: Maria Smolnikova; Production Designer: Valentina Ostankovich; Sound Designer: Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Projection Designer: Yana Birÿukova; Production Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Performers: Melanie Field; Annie Hägg; Kevin Hourigan; Annelise Lawson; Julian Elijah Martinez; Aubie Merrylees; Niall Powderly; Bradley James Tejeda; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Video Performers: Lucy Gardner; Mary Winter Szarabajka; Remsen Welsh

Artistic Staff: Assistant Director: Luke Harlan; Associate Production Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Associate Production Designer: Claire DeLiso; Puppet Designer: Matt Acheson; Fight Director and Dance Captain: Julian Elijah Martinez; Videographer: Lisa Keshisheva; Senior Interpreter to Dmitry Krymov and the Production: Tatyana Khaikin

Iseman Theater
June 21-25, 8 p.m.

Quiet Desperation

“The mass of men,” wrote Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”  This might well be the signpost hanging over Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a tale of the Pozorov sisters—Olga, Masha, and Irina—as they pine for a life of excitement in Moscow, their former home, while providing the only diversion for a military regiment garrisoned in a provincial Russian town.  The drama of the play comes from allowing us into these lives long enough to watch everything change for the worse. A depressing prospect, indeed.  Yet what makes it entertaining is Chekhov’s view of life as not essentially tragic, so that touches of humor and tenderness, of awkwardness and passion, and other displays of the pathos of personality, involve us but let us keep ourselves a bit distant.  Chekhov’s sisters are stuck there, but we get to watch them for awhile then leave, and one’s feeling about the experience, in the end, is shaped by that final tableau of the trio clumped at the edge of the stage, so near they might almost step off and be free, joining us in the world we’re trapped in, but instead they remain there to mirror for us stoical resignation (Olga), shattered romance (Masha), and dashed hopes (Irina).

Much rides on the last because, as the youngest, Irina is still too young to be crushed and, in this more brisk than yearning version now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, translated by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Les Waters with the Berkeley Rep, she gives us a vision of “the modern woman” forced to make her way herself.  We might well say that the death of the dream of a nostalgia-tinged Moscow that no longer exists, and the desire, in Irina, “to work” and, in Olga, “to know,” and the acceptance, in Masha, “to live,” indicate an improvement in their condition at last.

The best thing about this production is Ruhl’s thoughtful translation which manages to bypass some of the more stilted aspects of translated Chekhov, albeit with liberties—would the doctor really say “shtupping”?—that mostly serve comic purposes.  The feel of the language seems right for the characters, so that even the philosophizing seems character-driven rather than abstract.  Though that’s not to say the production has mastered the play.  The main problem is that there’s too much stage, too much space.  The production has to work hard to create any sense of intimacy on the University Theater stage, and I’ve rarely been so aware, watching a play, of characters as actors standing in place to speak.  This was particularly the case in the final Act outdoors where the set’s huge and uninviting porch simply overwhelmed what the scene needs to express.

Earlier scenes fare better: the best being Act Three in the upstairs bedroom while a fire rages in the town, and the first half keeps the action moving with liveliness between intimate conversations in the foreground and activity at the large diningroom table upstage, and yet, in the opening night show, there was a static quality that seemed to get between us and these people we’ve dropped in on.  The times when we were made to feel like privileged onlookers worked best—Irina being petted by Chebutykin, Vershinin reacting to a message about his wife, the sisters gossiping about their brother Andrei—and one of the marvels of the play is that every character—in a cast of thirteen—gets at least one “moment” to impress a personality upon us.

For that reason, it’s a play where “the support” is extremely important, and much commendation goes to James Carpenter as the fond, drunk, irascible, and perhaps even wise Chebutykin, to Sam Brelin Wright as the dour, mocking and ultimately dangerous Lermontov-wannabe Solyony, to Barbara Oliver, a figure of focused pathos as the used-up servant Anfisa, to Richard Farrell as the servant Ferapont, exhausted by indulging his superiors’ whims, and especially to Emily Kitchens as the repellently selfish Natasha, first Andrei’s fiancée, then wife, whose passive aggressiveness and single-minded conquest of the Pozorov household is both comic and chilling.  A word too for the young soldiers: as the boisterous Fedotik, Brian Wiles knows how to fill a space, and as the more bashful Rode, Josiah Bania made the most of his parting echoes.

In the larger roles, Keith Reddin's Kulygin seems neither comic nor pathetic enough as a cuckolded school master determined to be “content”; Thomas Jay Ryan as Irina’s dutiful beau Baron Tuzenbach gains in stature as the play progresses, his leavetaking from her finding its perfect expression in a request for coffee; as Vershinin, Bruce McKenzie has the bearing of a serious man surprised to find himself still capable of frivolity and affairs of the heart; we sense that we, like the other characters, could never really know him.

Then there are the Pozorovs: Alex Moggridge, as Andrei, seems too often simply awkward, as in Act Three, not giving us any insight into a man who marries a vain woman, unseats his sisters, and nearly gambles away their patrimony; as Irina, Heather Wood takes us from giddy youth to a more weary version quite well, while Wendy Rich Stetson is good both at Olga’s stoicism and her peevishness, together making up the sister most long-suffering but also most secure in herself; as Masha, the linchpin of the play, the sister who should be settled but is anything but, who flirts and wins and loses, Natalia Payne was best at moments of unspoken emotion—as for instance flying to join Vershinin or, with her sisters, staring off into the future at the end—but should be brought up more in the mix: Masha isn’t simply petulant, she’s the throwback to the 19th century novels of adultery—the woman who chose not to make her own way, as Olga and Irina do, but instead married her way into an eternal limbo.  The play, we might say, is only as strong as Masha’s suffering.  In the show on opening night, she was too easily eclipsed, thus slighting the “confirmed desperation” of her love for Vershinin.

On the whole: a well-played and respectful classic needing a bit more fire and movement.

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov A new version by Sarah Ruhl, with Elise Thoron, Natalya Paramonova, and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati Directed by Les Waters Yale Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

September 16-October 8, 2011