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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Vintage Three Sisters

From the Vault Dept.: I missed Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “Three Sisters” in 2008, but I was there for the 1987 production – the last time Nikos Psacharopoulos directed Chekhov. But I wasn’t as pleased with it as I would have liked to be.


A LITTLE CORNER of the Russian imagination is created almost every summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with the production of a Chekhov play. This year it’s “The Three Sisters,” the brooding search for happiness that results in compromise, despair and, ultimately, a quiet affirmation of faith.

John Heard, Rob Lowe, Roberta Maxwell,
Kate Burton, Amy Irving, Stephen Collins,
and Christopher Walken at Williamstown, 1987
The production teeters on a fine fulcrum. Is it a well-realized presentation of the intricate drama starring some of the better-known actors of today, or is it a chance for some Hollywood folk to get back on the stage (and thus assuage a guilt as old as the movie industry that celluloid just ain’t legit)?

Each of the three sisters has a core of pragmatism fired by an intense capacity to dream. The youngest, Irina (Kate Burton), looks forward to a perfect love, preferably in distant Moscow. Masha (Amy Irving) is married to a bore, Kulygin (John Heard) and encourages the attention of Lt. Col. Vershinin (Christopher Walken). Olga, the oldest (Roberta Maxwell), already is settling into the single life her sisters envy and dread.

The offstage incidents against which the drama is played include a festival, a fire and a murder: there is a rising level of intensity from act to act (there are four), so that the finale of the play should have the intense starkness of a Shostakovich symphony.

But in this production, directed by WTF’s artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos, the acts merely travel, one into the next, until the final curtain.

Inconsistencies occur from character to character and within individual characterizations as well. Walken’s performance is one of the biggest puzzles: he hurls his lines upstage as if with contempt for the audience; for all of the self-examination that is a keynote of Chekhov, Vershinin emerges as a flat, one-dimensional character.

Rob Lowe, on the other hand, has shaped a slightly eccentric, funny characterization around the part of bumbling Baron Tusenbach; if he sounded more comfortable with his lines he would have come across very impressively.

Daniel Davis had the perfect style of delivery for his lines as Captain Solynoy, the Baron’s rival for Irina’s hand; but what may have been intended as a complicated characterization of an arrogant man was never fully achieved, in part because Davis was squeezed into an upstage corner for most of the first act and thus never brought into dramatic focus.

There was an impressive cohesiveness about the sisters themselves, reinforced by the impression that they weren’t compelled to act too “sisterly.” But, as was true of the production in general, there was no sense of direction and thus no sense of climax.

One characteristic that nicely reinforces a Chekhov character is irony, usually the philosophical province of the better-educated. Dr. Chebutykin (Louis Zorich) is given to ironic pronouncements about the uselessness of life, but Zorich did so without that sense of mocking detachment. There is an excellent example of that technique in Michael Redgrave’s performance of the title role in “Uncle Vanya,” a staged production luckily preserved on film.

Stephen Collins (as Andrei, brother to the sisters) and John Heard came closest to filling out complicated roles, possibly because the weaknesses written into their characters provide unexpected points of focus.

Those characters not given to self-reflection came across the more plausibly. Amy Van Norstrand’s Natasha was a perfectly-played harridan, while Frank Hamilton as the deaf messenger Ferapont and Anne Pitoniak as the aged nurse were both quite funny – and poignant.

It’s ironic that the Moscow Art Theatre, which premiered this play at the beginning of the century, should have given us the very-misunderstood Stanislavsky “method,” sending too many overconfident, shallow actors onto stage and screen. This ensemble is impressive in that there is talent at its core, but a talent that could use the true Moscow Art technique to bring a sense of ensemble to the stage, with well-thought-out characterizations and a touch of the turn-of-the-century acting style to enhance Chekhov’s difficult – and certainly not “naturalistic” – dialogue.

Psacharopoulos is to be commended for his love of the Russian’s work, but he must never let his standards flag. This “Three Sisters,” as good as it is, cries out to be so much better. It should have been the best thing to hit the area all summer.

“THE THREE SISTERS” by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos. Produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Settings by John Conklin. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Pat Collins. Movement by Alex Bloomstein. Performances at 5 and 9 p.m. tonight and Aug. 29 and at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 24-28.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 24 August 1987

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