However extravagant it may seem to say so, Ad Hoc's production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters is simply fabulous--hauntingly beautiful and ultimately even inspiring. It's not perfect, because not all the actors are equally gifted. But those imperfections never detract from the production's effect on the viewer: nothing less than a laying open of human experience and the struggle for meaning. Ad Hoc's treatment of Macbeth (playing in repertory with Three Sisters) has the same cast and an even greater script. It's enjoyable--but never as revelatory.
The three Prozorov sisters live with their dear scholarly brother Andrei (a sparkling performance by Richard Nelson) on their father's estate in a moderate-sized Russian town. The oldest, Olga, teaches school and yearns for the fulfillment of marriage. Masha is married to Olga's colleague, a kindly pedant named Fyodol who bores her relentlessly. And lovely young Irina bubbles with life and ambition. As the story opens, it is Irina's birthday. She is twenty years old and she has had an epiphany--work, she announces, is the meaning of life.
Swirling around the sisters are the officers of their late father's regiment. Most are in love with Irina, though the aging company doctor had a penchant for the Prozorovs' late mother. But all Irina really yearns for is to go back with Olga to their birthplace of Moscow and reclaim the exciting life they knew there. Meanwhile, though, their brilliant brother marries a petit bourgeois shrew who eventually turns their happy home upside down and reduces Andrei to a sniveling fool.
Time passes. Things get worse. Moscow seems farther and farther away as Olga settles unwillingly into schoolmarmery and Irina learns that work often equals drudgery. Masha hates her marriage and longs for love, so she has an affair with the complicated Colonel Vershinin, whose own hysterical wife tries to kill herself on a regular basis. When the military fort is closed, Vershinin is shipped out, and Masha is left alone.
In Chekhov, marriage doesn't work, adultery doesn't work and celibacy doesn't work. Everyone wants something he doesn't have, and everyone is trapped by his own frail nature and inability to take action--and perhaps by his own lack of imagination. The great question Chekhov poses in this and many of his other plays is: What does it all mean? Is human experience part of some divine plan or is life absurd? Like the biblical patriarch Jacob, Chekhov wrestles with the angel all night long. But unlike Jacob, morning never comes for him.
And yet the very act of writing a play is a creative response to the fear of the abyss. What makes Chekhov great and what makes this production work so very well is Chekhov's fabulous wit. He reveals human beings in such vivid detail--their whininess as well as their magnificence--that we recognize all our own mistakes and shortcomings in them, and love them dearly anyway. So while Three Sisters is tragic, it's never depressing. There is no catharsis offered in the usual sense, but Chekhov's vision as realized in this production offers something equally cleansing and fulfilling: the opportunity to struggle with issues of meaning and to see how human beings circumvent their own best instincts. The viewer leaves the theater having lived through something profound--and perhaps determined to love life more completely.
Jon Patrick Selover's exquisite direction injects plenty of visual humor and keeps the entire company focused on a variety of delightful details. Even the scene changes are entertaining. James Gale gives another engrossing performance as Vershinin--almost equal parts fool and philosopher. His expressive features and sonorous voice involve us fully in the ethical questions his character raises. David Gesler's excellent performance as Captain Solyony, one of Irina's many suitors, introduces a subtle threat of cynicism and violence into the play, while Timothy Tate gives poor old Fyodol tenderness and the charm of faithful affection.
As for the sisters, Katherine Guthrie's Olga is all fine nerves and pathos. Therese Pickard is splendid as Masha--the most restive and sophisticated of the three. And Rebekah Buric captures the eye with her beauty and her skill as we watch Irina's youth run through her fingers. These three women create true intimacy on stage; we feel their affection and helplessness.
You have to hand it to Ad Hoc, too: Running rep is a mighty challenge, and a great idea for a small theater company. The cast's solid, traditional approach to Macbeth provides moments of insight and delight; the weird sisters are just wonderful and Buric makes even a stylized role a bright spot in the evening. Gale gives an estimable performance in the title role, but he's not quite as ingenious as he was in last year's Merchant of Venice or as fully human as he is in Three Sisters. One of the great pleasures of rep, though, is seeing the same actors perform very different roles in swift succession. The art of acting gets its own special spotlight.
Three Sisters through March 17 and Macbeth through March 24 at the Acoma Civic Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 820-2544.
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