Where is Anton Chekhov when you need him?
The great 19th-century Russian playwright is probably tucked soundly into some celestial sphere, where he’s likely considering the nature of happiness, the power of regret, the inevitability of fate. Chekhov has long departed us, but his spirit is alive – and currently visiting Philadelphia in productions at two major theaters.
I say his spirit, because both productions are new takes on Chekhov’s works and not your standard displays. Philadelphia Theatre Company is presenting “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the comedy that manages to both celebrate and make fun of Chekhov in one neat package. Arden Theatre Company offers a new translation of the master’s “Three Sisters,” staged in a way Chekhov couldn’t have imagined.
Both plays consider themes that Chekhov excelled at dissecting: How does the culture of a family crumble or change? How does society influence those changes? And what’s love got to do with it? (Yes, Tina Turner got her Chekhov right.)
Each production delivers excellent acting. And each suffers from a problem in tone: One is staged to be too overwrought. The other isn’t overwrought enough.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBeing not overwrought enough is an odd idea, but sometimes comedy calls for extreme measures. Last year’s Broadway debut of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Bucks County-based playwright Christopher Durang had a madcap feel, more like some of Chekhov’s short scripts than his weighty, revered plays. Durang sets us up in a secluded, woodsy Bucks County farmhouse, now inhabited by Sonia and Vanya, two of three siblings who are getting older fast. “Has the blue heron come to the pond this morning?” asks one of them early on – just the first in one of the play’s many Chekhovian spurts of dialogue.
Into the house pops their sister Masha, a big-deal film queen widely known for her roles in low-class scripts, with a decades-younger boy-toy at her side and an announcement to make: This house is up for sale. Her couch-potato brother and sister – who live like landed gentry – are going to have to land somewhere else.
Lots of artistic directors are producing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” around the country – it won last season’s new play Tony Award and several others, and the playwright-actor himself will portray Vanya later this summer when Bucks County Playhouse takes its shot at the play. Artistic directors generally make a point of telling their audiences that the play is a no-Chekhov-necessary evening – it won’t matter if you’re unfamiliar with his work. On Broadway, it struck me that you could have fun at the play if your Chekhov wasn’t brushed-up – and that you could have a downright rollicking time if it was.
The estimable James J. Christy’s production at Philadelphia Theatre Company, which has the added attraction of a hometown feel because of the play’s local setting and some dialogue (a character suggests a run to the nearest Wawa), made me feel differently. It seems to emphasize the Chekhovian aspects of the script – the longing, the arduous introspection, but not the laughs. This isn’t a question of acting, it’s one of interpretation and, to be fair, Durang’s play is so cleverly written to reflect Chekhov’s style that the dialogue could be read as serious declamation in several parts. Still, I don’t think you want that from a play that includes a costume party featuring Snow White and her dwarfs, a cleaning woman who knows how to use voodoo and has obsessive comical visions, and a hunk who likes standing around nearly naked.
Grace Gonglewski is the movie-star Masha, Kraig Swartz is her brother and Deirdre Madigan, her sister. The muscle-bound Spike is Alec Shaw and Kianné Muschett is the weird maid. A young woman, played by Clare O’Malley, becomes caught up with this family when she visits her uncle down the road. Durang defines the setting of this play as “a lovely farmhouse” which, in David P. Gordon’s rendering, it surely is.
Three SistersFor the past two years, the Arden’s producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen has been working with translator Curt Columbus on a new production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Columbus, the artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., has written a translation that’s clear and mixes a modern cadence with a 19th-century sense of the characters’ places in an evolving – the elite might have said devolving — Russian society.
It also out-Chekhovs Chekhov. “Life is just going by and it will never come back!” “What a lousy goddam existence – I can’t stand it!” “A storm is coming, that will wash away laziness…” Someone even delivers another version of life sucks and then you die. A lot of this angst shows up in Chekhov’s own text, but here, in a somewhat honed translation, it stands out. And under Nolen’s direction, this “Three Sisters” begins with drama then dives into to melodrama as the second half plays out … and out … and out.
None of this might have happened if Nolen and Columbus had stuck to their context, but what they provide is a schizophrenic “Three Sisters” whose form leaves us bewildered. The first half of the story plays out as a rehearsal, with the actors sitting in all-purpose clothes and even reading from scripts as they figure out the character interpretations and deal with the language. At one point, they consider the meaning of the word samovar, and a host of samovar images appear on a screen in the rehearsal studio – a screen that also displays the rural Russian estate where the play’s three sisters long for their native Moscow, and shows a TV version of the live action we see in the rehearsal.
The rehearsal breaks, and the audience takes an intermission. But when we return, the play resumes in newfound full gear – a whole other play indeed, with sets (Eugene Lee), costumes (Olivera Gajic), detailed lighting design (F. Mitchell Dana) and not even a hint about why. If there’s some meaning in this, I challenge you to find it.
As it turns out, the first half is far more interesting than the second, partly because the rehearsal setting, the cool visuals by Jorge Cousineau and the loose readings give us a new take on the play. One of the best aspects of “Three Sisters” is Chekhov’s detailed character studies of three young adult women and the men who love them or try to. But we get no studies here, because the way the Arden production presents them in skewed fashion, there’s no deep through-line to these characters, just the highlights.
Many in the super-talented cast of 14 play musical instruments and sing and dance to James Sugg’s snappy Russian tunes added for the production. The three sisters are the excellent trio of Sarah Sanford, Katharine Powell and Mary Tuomanen, and the rest of the cast includes locally-based actors, some of them standouts (Scott Greer, Louis Lippa, Ian Merrill Peakes, James Ijames, Cathy Simpson, Luigi Sottile, Jake Blouch, Sam Henderson and Daniel Ison) , plus fine out-of-town actors (Rebecca Gibel and Charlie Thurston). If only they could have just kept rehearsing, in both parts of the play and for the entire run.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” from Philadelphia Theater Company is at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, through April 20. www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or 215-985-0420.
“Three Sisters” is at Arden Theatre Company, Second Street north of Market, through April 20. www.ardentheatre.org or 215-922-1122.