Chekhov gets a modern update, two times over

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 9, 2014

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(From left) Sarah Sanford, Mary Tuomanen and Katharine Powell star, respectively, as Olga, Irina and Masha in the Arden’s "Three Sisters." (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Since late March, the spectacular Russian playwright Anton Chekhov has gotten a contemporary reboot via two productions seeking to update the 19th-century dramatist for the 21st century. In Old City, Arden Theatre Company is staging its long-awaited production of Chekhov’s masterpiece Three Sisters, while on the Avenue of the Arts, Philadelphia Theatre Company features the local premiere of the Chekhov-inspired Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Bucks County playwright Christopher Durang.

At the Arden, Three Sisters opens on a stage where a company of actors are conducting a table reading of Chekhov’s famous play. If that’s not strange enough, one of the actors (Jake Blouch) is shooting their rehearsal with a small camera that projects the action onto the wall behind them. Adding to the theatricality, the country home where the sisters live with their brother, Andre (the fantastic Luigi Sottile), is represented by a small doll house—a curious effect, but relatively short-lived. As the drama progresses and the sisters’ dream of returning to Moscow is replaced by the actuality of their tedious lives in the Russian countryside, artistic director Terrence J. Nolen’s production increasingly immerses us in their dreary world. Little by little, furniture is added to the stage; by the second half, its previous stagecraft has evolved into realism.

Truly riveting at times, Three Sisters is an ambitious and impressively original approach to the Chekov standard, and it serves Curt Columbus’ contemporary translation nicely. Amid the brilliant scenic design by the supremely talented Eugene Lee, the large ensemble beautifully embodies the author’s army of flawed characters. Standouts include Ian Merrill Peakes as an emotionally wounded military officer; Scott Greer as the drunken doctor, Chebutykin; Rebecca Gibel as Natasha, Andre’s supremely pushy wife Natasha; and Katharine Powell as the troubled egoist, Masha. None is better, however, than Sarah Sanford, who gives the most remarkable performance of her career as eldest sister Olga, a strong, determined woman battered by a life of unfulfilled desires.

Set in what is described as “a lovely farmhouse in Bucks County,” Durang’s comedy—which captured the Tony Award last year for best new play—focuses on three middle-age siblings, all of whom are clearly inspired by similarily named characters in Chekhov plays. Vanya (Kraig Swartz) and Sonia (Deirdre Madigan) regularly occupy the home, while their sister, Masha (portrayed by local legend Grace Gonglewski), a glamorous movie star famous for her role as a nymphomaniac action hero, has returned home for a brief visit—and to inform her brother and sister that she plans on selling the house. Accompanying Masha is Spike (Alec Shaw), her current boy-toy, a far younger and much less successful actor with six-pack abs and boundless sexual energy.

Like other Chekhov’s plays, there are no seismic plot twists in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but Durang echoes the Russian playwright’s ability to show characters undergoing profound changes in a seemingly static environment. Often very funny, Durang’s play—which slyly draws from a number of Chekhov’s greatest works—sneaks up on the audience, taking hordes by surprise with its surprisingly affecting observations about aging and regret. James J. Christy balances the script’s nimble mix of slapstick and poignancy with his almost-indetectable direction, allowing his marvelous cast to shine. Terrific performances from Gonglewski and Madigan abound, but it is Swartz who especially dazzles; he is wonderful as an idealistic gay man with a fear of global warming.

Although Three Sisters and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike have more differences than similarities, both aim to make Chekhov relevant for today’s theater-goers. Sure, one could argue that Chekhov is the last playwright in need of an update; often considered the first modern playwright, his blend of tragedy and comedy was so unique, it gave birth to a new genre of theater. But nevertheless, despite their contemporary sheen, the productions at PTC and the Arden are ultimately true to the themes in Chekhov’s work. Despite their inability to find any shred of happiness in their romantic attachments, the characters in both each have a remarkable ability to persevere. They carry on, hoping that their not-so-secretly empty lives have value and meaning—and wondering how they will be viewed by future generations.

The coincidental convergence of Chekhov makes it worth considering if there might be a future for more purposeful collaboration between the city’s theater troupes. One can picture a scenario where audiences could simultaneously experience the entire canon from a single dramatist, or move from theater to theater exploring a single theme or subject, while embracing the unique artistic aesthetic of different companies. Regardless of whether or not such an idea should ever come to fruition, at least Philadelphians can, for the next week and a half, wade into the world of one of history’s greatest playwrights.

 

Three Sisters: Through April 20. $15-$48. The Arden Theater, 40 N. Second St. ardentheatre.org; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: Through April 20. $46-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org

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