Out of Character
An arresting new interpretation of Chekhov's classic 'The Three Sisters' forgoes the usual melancholic sighs for a loud, rage-filled tour de force.

The Moscow Times
By John Freedman
Published: March 12, 2004
(русский перевод)


Lord knows I have complained often enough about the decade-long pandemic of copycat Chekhov productions that we constantly must slog through. They remind me of a phrase my father used to use, one whose logic I never could quite crack -- "it's all the same difference." Now, from the daunting heights of personal experience that I have attained in more decades of life than I wish to admit, I have come to realize that Dad meant something like all those dozens, nay, hundreds, of Chekhov productions that, for all their differences, are, in fact, spot-on identical.

But there is always something ready to come along and burst your bubble, isn't there?

In this case, I mean an arresting new interpretation of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," the tale about three cultured women who dream in vain of returning to Moscow when the backwater burg they live in is vacated by an army garrison, the town's only source of entertainment. This show at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater wreaked havoc on my neat theory that cloned Chekhov productions are running neck and neck with global warming, criminal political crusaders and Britney Spears in an evil conspiracy to destroy Planet Earth. In fact, most of the characters in this tough, challenging production, created jointly by directors Yury Klepikov and Vladimir Yachmenev, look as though they have gazed into the fires of Armageddon and wish to tell us what they have seen before the conflagration engulfs them.

This is one household of unhappy people. No one, however, is pining gloomily for the past or the future. No one is heaving the sad sighs of loneliness and melancholy. Almost everyone here -- the three sisters and all of the other family members, visitors and hangers-on -- is caught in that vicious downward spiral that is otherwise known as life. Each is in the grips of deep-seated frustration, if not rage. Suffering is something they do loudly and demonstratively, not cowering in the shadows.

This makes for some very funny moments, as in the desperate, clawing love scenes played out with everybody watching. When the humor is eclipsed, such as when Andrei, the three sisters' once-gentle brother, begins breaking down psychologically, this show can throw a chill down your spine.

And then there are the numerous scenes where comedy and heart-stopping drama race forward hand in hand. For me, one of the most memorable of these moments takes place as the luckless but congenial Tuzenbach (Alexei Shevchenkov) swears repeatedly that he is going to be happy. Every time he utters the word "happy," the pompous Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin (Andrei Merzlikin), all philosophy and no brains, stridently interrupts him and grumbles, "No!" By the seventh or eighth round of this shotgun exchange, we are consumed by laughter and shaken by the realization that, jerk or not, Vershinin is right -- the clueless Tuzenbach can't ever possibly be happy.

One of the discoveries of this production is the depth of the characters of Andrei (Stanislav Duzhnikov) and his wife Natalya (Yelena Ksenofontova). The typical handling of this pair is for Andrei to be a mouse and for Natalya to be a rat. Not so at the Dzhigarkhanyan. Ksenofontova plays a sex goddess who uses her feminine wiles and lack of scruples to cow everyone into submission. Brusque, flirtatious and self-confident, she keeps Andrei in a state of frustrated agitation by leading him on sexually but rarely allowing him to get beyond preliminaries. For his part, Andrei starts out as a compassionate man who seems too normal for all the eccentrics surrounding him, but eventually develops into a strangely violent man who chases around the old watchman Ferapont (Denis Nadtochy) in an effort to engage him in wrestling matches, and who, in his lowest moment, spouts off a speech about how good Natalya is while rudely kicking a group of fire victims out of his house.

In short, the characters and situations of Chekhov's play are the same as they have always been, but they are cast in an entirely new, completely believable, light that allows us to approach them as if for the first time.

Kulygin, customarily a dowdy old Greek teacher whose colorless personality oppresses his wife Masha (Olga Kuzina), the second in age of the three sisters, is a strong, stylish, sensitive man in the performance of Alexander Bukharev. This comes as a revelation and significantly tightens the drama of Masha's brief affair with Vershinin. When Masha strays to Vershinin, a comically clumsy and irritating type as performed by Merzlikin, we can only conclude that the demons driving her are far more profound than mere boredom. The result is that both Kulygin and Masha become more complex, and so interesting, as characters.

Most of the private, intimate scenes in Chekhov's play take place in this production before the eyes of all. There are no secrets here; everyone knows his or her own sorrows and understands that they are shared by all. In this light, Masha's farewell meeting with Vershinin is especially moving. Kulygin stands by watching the whole thing happen and, even so, moves to comfort Masha, who is shattered by Vershinin's departure.

The sisters Olga (Yelena Medvedeva), Masha and Irina (Anna Bashenkova) seem overwhelmed but not quite broken by the tragedy of their lives going to waste. Olga is tough and stoic; Masha is as trivial as she is explosive; Irina is 20 going on 45, a woman who knows instinctively that life holds no hope for her but also knows it would be in bad taste to show it. She agrees to marry Tuzenbach because she has no other choice, but when she hears he has been killed in a duel, her reaction is hollow. Any emotions she ever may have had were spent long ago.

Klepikov and Yachmenev have given the show an almost feverish pace. People are constantly running in and out, interrupting one another, shouting each other down. On occasion someone might try to escape into a corner but peace seldom lasts long there -- the crowd always finds them and envelops them again in the swirl of noise and activity.

The soundscape of this show is handled beautifully. Rattling and crashing sounds back up the action at key moments while a half-singing, half-howling chorus distantly accompanies Andrei's bitterly ironic speech that happiness awaits him and his wife and son in the not-too-distant future.

The set by Ilya Yevdokimov is a layered space that is occasionally sliced in two by a pair of transparent plastic panels that act as a "wall with eyes." When Natalya and Andrei escape the crowd at Irina's 20th birthday party to paw each other in lustful abandon, all the guests stand staring at them from the other room. Looming in the back are the bare trees of an orchard, apparently a hint that the logical extension of "The Three Sisters" is "The Cherry Orchard," Chekhov's next and final great play in which a family loses its grip on past glories and is driven out of its house altogether.

"The Three Sisters" (Tri Sestry) at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater, 17 Lomonosovsky Prospekt. Metro Universitet. Tel. 930-7049, 930-4269. Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes.


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Actor Alexei V.Shevchenkov