Chekhovian Heebie-Jeebies

Three Sisters is quintessential Chekhov, as far as it deals with mooning, overeducated, well-to-do people in the country who wish they were mooning, overeducated, well-to-do people in the city, or anywhere else so long as it's not on some godforsaken nowhere provincial Russian estate. Sometimes I wish Chekhov had stretched a little, and written a sequel to one of his plays, like Three Sisters Go to Moscow, say, in which Olga, Irina, and Masha would spend a wild summer cruising A-list parties and having a half-dozen meaningless affairs. It would have been good for his characters, and it might have given a healthy jolt to the czarist Russian soul.

Since he didn't, you'll have to settle for Chekhov done well, which is how the Shotgun Players are doing him. Their Three Sisters at the Speakeasy has a few fancy flourishes (like Slavic folk music) but mostly feels -- I mean this in the best sense -- like plain wooden furniture. Director Reid Davis has kept the pace slow and deliberate; his cast is unpretentious but potent. "Chekhov's plays, more than those of any other dramatist, aspire to and achieve the condition of music," John Simon once wrote, and although I can't say Davis' production made me want to hum, every scene that starts in a slack and tedious monotone manages to end in a lyrical flurry.

The show begins with house lights up; cast and crew wander onstage with glasses, candles, tables, and chairs. They whisper good luck to each other and then Olga starts to speak. This blurring of the line between reality and spectacle feels like an homage to Vanya on 42nd Street (most of the live Chekhov I've seen in the last few years can't get away from that film, but it also sets a perfect tone). "It's a year ago today that father died, May 5th, on your birthday, Irina," says Olga, and Katie Bales performs her with a smiling Chekhovian detachment, seeming to talk to herself, or to the audience, instead of her sister.

Chekhov Done Well: Maria Candelaria, Beth Donohue, and Katie Bales.
Benjamin Lovejoy
Chekhov Done Well: Maria Candelaria, Beth Donohue, and Katie Bales.

Details

By Anton Chekhov. Translated by Carol Rocamora. Directed by Reid Davis. Produced by the Shotgun Players. Starring Katie Bales, Maria Candelaria, Beth Donohue, and others. At the Speakeasy Theater, 2016 Seventh St. (at University), Berkeley, through April 9. Admission is $10-15; call (510) 655-0813

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Maria Candelaria's Irina has the same filmy-eyed disconnect; when she gives her speech on the nobility of work, the whole living room listens politely, although she's mouthing platitudes. "How wonderful it must be to get up at dawn and pave streets, or be a shepherd ...." Candelaria seems uneven and uncomfortable, but she's absolutely in character. Irina's dreaminess dissipates in the third act, and when she rails about her tedious job at the telegraph office, Candelaria quits being uneven and breaks down with heartbreaking acuity.

Beth Donohue also plays an effective Masha, standing around in black and giving everyone sullen looks. She's married to a fool, Kulygin, but loves a military man, Vershinin. Donohue keeps her talent for disconsolate wailing muted until the very end, and then lets loose, maybe a little too freely. Her strongest scene is Masha's speech about faith and life's hollowness, which manages to sound rather hollow.

Amanda Duarte does a nervous, bubbly job as Natasha, the household imposter who wants to see bright colors and little flowers around her but also cheats on Andrei with Protopopov. Her best moment comes at the end of Act 2, when Protopopov arrives in a carriage. Natasha barrels off in ridiculous perky white furs: "I'll be home in half an hour, just a short ride, that's all!"

As for the men, who tend to declare their love for the most inappropriate women: Phil Stockton is a solid Vershinin, heavyset and imperturbable; Todd Parmley's Andrei comfortably balances a gentleman's reserve with smoldering hunger to get away from his provincial duties and become a university professor. (He even looks Russian, behind his young beard and glasses; the rest of the cast doesn't.) And Danny Wolohan's hopped-up Solyoni adds a nervous tension to the show that it can't do without.

However: Robert Parsons' Tuzenbach, Jeff Elam's Kulygin, and Yuval Sharon's smaller characters are blank spots in the cast, because all three men overplay in different directions. And Michael Frassinelli's understated set turns overstated in Act 3 -- for no clear reason, Olga and Irina's bedroom looks like a bordello. Frassinelli evokes the family garden in the final act with a disappointingly bare stage, but at least it's not a distraction.

The quietly despairing characters in Chekhov's 1900 masterpiece worry about how future generations will remember them -- as silly and stupid, or noble and humane? -- so Davis emphasizes Fedotik's snapshots, and even gives him one or two more to take. The point is millennial, timely, because those still moments caught in the icy flash look like photos you might find in your attic. They not only deflate the romance of bygone times but also beg the horrible question of how our grandchildren might remember us. Three modern sisters would more than likely sell the dacha and live high in Moscow; the world's surface has changed convulsively since 1900. But has it grown morally better? Have pettiness and spiritual desperation gone away? An honest answer is enough to give you the Chekhovian heebie-jeebies.

 
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