"I can't go on, I'll go on," wrote Samuel Beckett in a line that would come to crystallize much of his work. Beckett's epigrammatic oxymoron describes the experience of many of Anton Chekhov's characters, some 75 years before that. Long before Vladimir and Estragon waited and waited for Godot, Olga, Masha and Irina waited and dreamed and planned and never actually got to Moscow.
Chekhovian inertia and ultimately inescapable ennui, is in full bloom in Berkeley Rep's The Three Sisters. This is the West coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl's new version of the 1901 play. In the Berkeley-to-Broadway In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Ruhl showed us that the desperation in the constricted lives of Victorian women could be comedic gold. But her take on Chekhov is much more sober.
Chekhov himself described Three Sisters as a "comedy" and indeed the self-pitying iterations and reiterations and resolutions (followed by stasis) is an absurd state of affairs. Chekhov went on to deem this play "vaudeville" and while I have never seen it performed that way, it has been demonstrated that Chekhov was a pioneer of black comedy. But what is one person's tragi-comedy is director Les Waters's idea of strum und drang.
Emily Kitchens, Wendy Rich Stetson and Heather Wood
In Waters's capable production of Ruhl's straight-forward script, we pity these daughters of the evaporating aristocracy. They see themselves as in exile, helpless to do anything but long for their past. In this production, we take them for their word when they tell us that they are trapped by their circumstances. If they have said the same thing 20 times by ACT II, if they imagine escape but never pursue it, woe is them. But their treadmill angst could also be perceived as pathetic and comic.
While tedium is critical to the characters' condition, some of it wafts audience-ward too. The interminable contemplation of life and death and the meaning of it all grows wearisome over the play's three hours.
James Carpenter, Thomas Jay Ryan, Heather Wood and Bruce McKenzie
Each time the women bemoan their lives it's as if they have never said it before. They wallow in their misery with little self-awareness. Wan and winsome, Heather Wood plays the youngest sister, Irina whose youth is fading along with her vitality and hope; Wendy Rich Stetson plays the stoic Olga, the eldest sister, who eventually takes the headmistress position she swore she would never accept. Dressed in black and cloaked in gloom, Natalia Payne plays Masha, the married sister who can barely swallow down her bitterness. Throughout it all, the three comfort each other that next year they will move to Moscow.
Perhaps the nuanced performances of sad heroines who are tragic, pitiable and funnily so, isn't successful here. But there is comedy in more conventional places. The characters who have married into the family are blathering, clueless clowns who annoy the sisters and provide great comic relief.
Natalia Payne and Keith Reddin
Keith Reddin is perfectly imbecilic and unctuous as Masha's husband Kulygin. He is a self-important school-teacher with the irritating (amusing) affectation of declining Latin nouns incessantly and grading people's behavior. Reddin's character is a classic cuckold. He's a buffoon who is oblivious to Masha's contempt -- or her affair with Colonel Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie.)
Also very entertaining is the utterly obnoxious Natasha, who becomes the wife of Andrei, (Alex Moggridge as the chronically unhappy brother of the Prozorova sisters.) With a veneer of sweetness, she confuses haughtiness with gentility. A layer of mean hides her desperate insecurity and Emily Kitchens brings a necessary energy to her role as the comic villainess.
These two are buffoons who are puffed up imitations of nobility. But the family's relationship with their social class is more complicated. Written at the brink of the Russian Revolution, Chekhov's sisters wax nostalgic for the halcyon days of Russian aristocracy, culture and refinement. Yet they are equally idealistic about a bold, bright future for their generation. Irina, in particular, believes she admires and craves the life of laborers and those who work for a living. She complains about being "a young woman who wakes at twelve o'clock, then has coffee in bed, then spends two hours dressing. . . Oh, how awful that is!" After several jobs as a menial laborer, she's soon complaining again.
As is their wont.