Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Sarah Ruhl edition)

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”

So wrote Anton Chekhov, considered to be one of the founders of Modernism in theater. He practiced as a medical doctor for most of his life, but managed in his spare time to turn out some of the best regarded short stories and plays of his - or any - era.

My first Chekhov was his early play, Ivanov. Later, I saw The Cherry Orchard at CSUB. (Unfortunately, I didn’t blog about it at the time.) While Ivanov felt a bit like a first effort (which it was), the later four plays are masterpieces. (That group also includes The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.) The themes are clearer, and the drama seems more focused. Because Chekhov was an early Modernist, the language of his characters sound more like real vernacular (unlike, say, Shakespeare.) However, depending on the translation, this characteristic tends to get lost.

In this case, The Empty Space used a new translation/adaptation by Sarah Ruhl. It is considered an adaptation because Ruhl is (by her own admission) not fluent enough in Russian to do a real translation. However, she worked with several individuals who assisted in ascertaining the meaning of the original text and converting it to an English idiom. The intent was to render Chekhov’s words both fairly literally and yet also in a modern English vernacular. Oh, and also to restore some of the stuff taken out by Victorian Era censors.

Personally, I loved what Ruhl did with the story. It flowed well, even as there were so many lines that just screamed “Russian Literature!” in a familiar way. Although I haven’t read this one in another translation, I did run through some synopses of the plot, and it wasn’t a “retelling” in the way movies often are. It was true to the original in the letter and spirit.

I highly recommend reading Ruhl’s notes on how she approached the new version. She includes the first scene in that link, so you can get an idea of her language.

Three Sisters is a simple enough story, without much in the way of surprises. The drama is internal: what goes on in the minds of the characters. And, what is the meaning of life? That is a central concern of Chekhov’s, and his is a pretty pessimistic vision. (My middle daughter, who is pretty macabre, said, “well that was depressing” afterward.)

The three sisters are Olga, Masha, and Irina. Their father died a year before the play opens, leaving them and their brother Andrei living on the family property in a provincial Russian town. (Population, around 100,000, as it turns out.) This is in stark contrast to Moscow, where they were born and spent their formative years. The sisters all want to get back to Moscow, which they see as everything their current circumstances aren’t: sophisticated, adventuresome, and full of opportunity.

However, circumstances get in the way. Andrei falls in love with the lower-class Natalya (Natasha) and marries her, but the marriage goes sour. Natasha openly cheats on Andrei and abuses the servants. She manipulates and bullies the sisters. Andrei, for his part, escapes through gambling, which leads to him mortgaging the property and thus preventing the sisters from selling it and moving back to Moscow.

Olga works as a school teacher, but hates the job. However, the need to make a living means she has to stay on. She regrets not marrying when she had the chance.

Masha has married a teacher, but the bloom has come off that rose as well. He isn’t particularly smart or good looking, and she is bored. He is a good man, however, and one of the truly sympathetic characters in the play.

Irina starts the play with optimism, but this is eventually beaten out of her by life. She works first as a switchboard operator and later as a clerk for the city counsel.

The only bright side of their lives is the presence of a regiment of soldiers, who themselves represent the intellectual stimulation of outsiders from the great world beyond.

Masha is swept off her feet by the commander, Vershinin, who is married to a mentally ill woman. They have an affair which makes Masha happy for a time, but she is heartbroken when the soldiers are deployed elsewhere.

Irina becomes engaged to Baron Tuzenbach, who she does not love, in large part because he represents a ticket out of her boring life.

There are some fascinating themes in this play. The first is the idea of “Moscow.” As I noted above, Moscow isn’t so much a literal place as the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the sisters. It is the glorious Utopia that awaits them, if they only can managed to find a way there. We all have our “Moscow” in some way, though. Sometimes it is more literal than others, but we all have some idea of a move, a change, a growth, that will make things better.

One thing that particularly hit home was a line (and I can’t give you direct quotes) to the effect that “there are 100,000 people here, but they are all alike.” This goes with Andrei’s lament that when he was in Moscow, he didn’t know anyone, but felt like he belonged; whereas in the (unnamed) town, he knows everyone but feels desperately alone. Irina feels that she is becoming stupider the longer she stays. She used to be fluent in multiple languages, but she is losing her skill with nobody to talk to.

I can kind of sympathize. It has been a rough couple of years to live in Bakersfield. We are, as many have pointed out, the “Texas of California,” with a low average education level, high poverty, and, well, a lot of people with Truck Nutz and Confederate Battle Flags as their aesthetic. But this is an oversimplification. We also have a vibrant arts, music, and theater community, and plenty who are not dragging their knuckles and panting after an orange sociopath. I guess it was a bit ironic to be reminded of the frustrations of living in Bakersfield...while attending an outstanding dramatical production along with several friends who are intelligent, well informed, and thoroughly decent people.

That is the problem with our “Moscows.” As Vershinin notes, Moscow mostly looks attractive when you are not there. Once you actually go there, the shine comes off that too, and you are left with your former problems. Wherever you go, there you still are. Chekhov plays these two ideas off each other throughout the entire play. When we place the source of our happiness outside ourselves, we are bound to be disappointed. When we live in the past and the “if-onlys,” we will be unable to make beauty and happiness in the present.

Related to this theme is that of the future. The future is its own “Moscow.” The characters talk at length at various points in the play about the future and its meaning for those alive now. What will life be like in 200 years? Some characters think it will be glorious, while others believe that all the technology and progress won’t change what life feels like - it will be largely the same. In 200 years, will anyone remember us? Probably not, at least for most of us. I know a little about my ancestors on one branch that far back. Which is cool, but I don’t know them in any real sense. They are history, not memory. On the other hand, what will history do with the collective “we”? Will we be remembered with contempt, or with admiration? Chekhov makes both arguments. Will we end up making life better for our descendants? Or worse? (It’s early, but there are good signs that the Baby Boomers are not going to be remembered fondly…)

And then, the ultimate question: what is the point of all this suffering and unhappiness? Will we ever know? In fact, the play ends with this question, with the sisters begging the fates, as it were, to reveal these secrets.

As usual, The Empty Space put on an outstanding production. I have commended them time and again for their commitment to their particular approach to the theater: intimate space, low budgets and correspondingly affordable tickets, high artistic values, and a broad range of repertoire.

The three sisters were excellently cast. Cody Ganger is the daughter of long-time (and now retired) BC professor Randy Messick (also in this play as the drunken doctor, Chebutykin), and has been a favorite actor of mine for a number of years. Of particular note was the chemistry she showed as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew with her husband Kevin, which made a rather sexist play seem more like a tongue-in-cheek inside joke between lovers. Ganger directed Three Sisters, and was thrust into the role of Olga after the original lead had to back out. I was not disappointed with Ganger, who brought a pathos and gravity to the role of the oldest sister - the one who has always held everything together. 

 Olga (Cody Ganger), Irina (Brittany Beaver), and Masha (Mariah Jordan)

I don’t remember seeing Mariah Jordan in anything before, but she has appeared in a few I haven’t seen locally. As the middle sister, Masha, she was outstanding. There was real electricity in her scenes, particularly her passionate romance with Vershinin - very uncomfortable chemistry, both because this is an adulterous relationship, and because Rikk Cheshire is significantly older than her. I will be adding Jordan to my list of local actors I wish to watch. I am also pleased to see she teaches locally. That so many local thespians are passing their craft on to a new generation does my heart good.

As the younger sister, Brittany Beaver was one of the younger cast members. She is just a college student at this point, but she is showing definite signs of growth as an actor. I last saw her in Of Mice and Men, and she was competent, but a bit green. This part gave her a wider emotional range to play, and I thought she did quite well. And, more than anything, the three sisters had outstanding chemistry - the sisterhood was thoroughly believable. 

 Dr. Chebutykin (Randy Messick)

There were a number of the “the usual suspects” in this play, from Ryan Lee as a brooding Solyony, Carlos Vera in yet another small part (and playing piano!), Randy Messick looking good at whatever he does, Carolyn Fox filling in with another small part, Nolan Long as the frustrated and weak Andrei, and Shelbe McClain as the insecure and vindictive Natasha. (Last seen in BC’s Hamlet, McClain is best suited to small venues - her voice isn’t big enough to fill the outdoors, but she is compelling up close.) 

 Natasha (Shelbe McClain) and Andrei (Nolan Long)

I hadn’t seen Rikk Cheshire in a production before, but he was solid in his role, which was awkward on several levels. Obviously the adultery, but also the age difference, which our modern sensibilities see differently than Chekhov might have.

 Vershinin (Rikk Cheshire) and Masha (Mariah Jordan)

Two additional roles merit specific mention. Newcomer (to the Empty Space) Matthew Prewitt really shined as Baron Tuzenbach. Although he is pretty young, and the role probably was envisioned as older, he made the Baron into a sympathetic character. In addition, he played piano AND guitar at various times - and can play while carrying on a conversation (in the play) and acting with his body. Like his character, he isn’t much to look at (in the conventional sense) - he’s shortish and waifishly thin - but compelling as an actor. I hope he gets more parts in the future. 

Baron Tuzenbach (Matthew Prewett)

The one I really want to discuss, though, is Karl Wade in the role of Kulygin, Masha’s unfortunate husband. It cannot be easy to play the role of the cuckold in any case. But to play one who is a bit of a punchline, wearing a ludicrous mustache at first, then getting grief for shaving it, has to be a tough job indeed. And also to be the cuckold who goes from being oblivious to the affair to taking your wife back with “no questions asked” - and somehow not be laughable but genuinely sympathetic and noble - that is a feat indeed. Particularly since Kulygin is pedantic and condescending to Masha, and certainly not a naturally likeable character as written. Wade is physically perfect for the role. A bit overweight, and, like me, far from a heartthrob. A bit goofy, but sincere. It was so easy to see why Masha would go for the tall, handsome (if slightly creepy) Vershinin over the mundane Kulygin. And also to realize that Kulygin doesn’t deserve this in a moral sense, yet it seems inevitable that this would happen because of who he is. That is why when he takes the devastated Masha back, you just know she won’t be happy, and that this isn’t a good marriage. And yet, Kulygin is so good and sympathetic even while being ludicrous and boring and all, that you really wish that Masha could find it in herself to love him just a little. Karl Wade deserves an award for his work in this role. [Later note: I completely missed that Wade was in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour as the lunatic Ivanov.]

 Vershinin (Rikk Cheshire), Masha (Mariah Jordan), and Kulygin (Karl Wade)

There are a few “characters” which affect the action, despite never appearing on stage. Vershinin’s insane wife, for example, tries to kill herself, causing Vershinin to leave abruptly. And it is clear that Natasha is leaving for a tryst with her lover, but we never see him. Likewise, except for Andrei’s younger child (who probably isn’t his), who appears only as a sleeping infant, none of the children actually appear, despite their presence in the plot.

I wish I could remember all of the marvelous lines - it really is powerful when it comes to the philosophy, and the dialogue is quite witty. It might be worth buying Ruhl’s version just to re-read those moments. Chekhov is always witty and philosophical, but the translation can really enhance or detract from the experience. Ruhl’s version is definitely the former, and I highly recommend it.

Three Sisters also runs this upcoming weekend at the Empty Space. Locals will definitely want to check it out, and support local theater.


I couldn’t figure out where to put it in the post, but I do have to mention the line where the anti-social Solyony says:

“When a man talks philosophy you get sophistry but when a woman talks philosophy, or God forbid two, you might as well pull my finger.”

This is one of the lines that gets either cut or bowdlerized in many translations. Yes, fart jokes are pretty much the same in any language or time in history. Even if some (say, my wife) don’t get the appeal.


Just a note on the pictures: The Empty Space always has fantastic publicity photos on their Facebook site. One of my eldest daughter's classmates is one of their photographers, which is pretty cool. Anyway, while other theaters here in Bakersfield put on great productions, in most cases their publicity lags behind TES for publicity photography. Come on! This is the 21st Century! Put your photos online! 


One more thing: I love Clint Black - great songwriter, solid guitarist. And this is IMO his best album.

This is one of my favorites of his cuts, and it sure fits with Moscow and our inability to escape ourselves...

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