Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Three Sisters

I'm not a big fan of Anton Chekhov. I've gone to see a few Uncle Vanyas over the years, most of them decent productions. While I've seen The Seagull done well a couple of times, it's not a play that I particularly enjoy: I think the balance of humor and drama in the piece is skewed because it always feels very heavy-handed. I've only seen The Cherry Orchard once but, fortunately, it was the Peter Brook production in 1988 and it was fantastic. And until this weekend, I'd never seen Three Sisters at all. For whatever reason, I just don't have the affection for Chekhov that many other theater artists seem to feel.

There are a only few strong moments in Classical Theatre of Harlem's Three Sisters at Harlem Stage. The space itself is by far the most outstanding: The Gatehouse was originally a pumping station, built in 1890, for the Old Croton Aqueduct; it has recently been restored and renovated into a beautiful flexible-seating theater. The set, by Troy Hourie, was simple and intriguing: it is made up almost entirely of overlapping oriental rugs with a few chairs and tables brought ontage when they're absolutely needed. Kimberly Glennon's costumes—traditional, turn of the 20th century attire, to be sure—work well for this production. Reg E. Cathey as Chebutykin and Sabrina LeBeauf as Olga, the eldest sister, both have stellar speeches in Act III that they deliver simply and passionately. And the chairs for the audience are pretty comfortable.

Director Christopher McElroen has created a long, narrow performance area down the center of the Gatehouse and seated the audience in just three rows on two sides of it, like a basketball court; it's an unusual choice in that it allows the audience to be intimately close to an actor onstage and to be a great distance from other members of the cast, all in the same instant. I assume that he is making a point about the swift and dramatic changes in the relationships between the characters of the play, but it may also have been that he just thought it would look cool (and it did look cool). He creates some very fine stage pictures for us with the actors but his direction of their performances is, unfortunately, lacking: many of them were unintelligible—even when they were standing right in front of me—and several of the character choices were flat and uninspired. Casting may be 90% of directing but that other 10% is extremely important—especially if you've made missteps in the casting.

The acting, for the most part, is weak but I don't entirely blame the performers: they all seem to have been left to muddle it out for themselves. I couldn't understand a word that either Earle Hyman (Ferrapont) and Carmen de Lavallade (Anfisa) said—if Olga hadn't told another character who Anfisa was, I'd never have know what that woman was doing onstage; I still don't know what Ferrapont has to do with the story. Roger Guenveur Smith as Vershinin has opted for the most odd vocal choice: he delivers every line in a sort of musical style that reminded me of a pianist practicing scales—he uses lots of notes to very little effect and he can't be heard. I've seen Daphne Gaines do exceptional work before this and there were several moments where she is on the verge of catching fire, if only she'd been given some guidance. Jonathan Peck, Billy Eugene Jones, Carmen Gill and Amanda Mason Warren also have a few moments that sparkle but they aren't enough: the play drags very slowly to the inevitably bleak conclusion (it is Chekhov, after all). The actors' struggles are not helped at all by Laurence Senelick's translation, which may very well be accurate but it sounds like really rotten dialogue.

I've heard many good things about Classical Theater of Harlem—in particular, their recent revival of Jean Genet's The Blacks that won several awards two years ago. I'll definitely go back to see their work again... but I may read the reviews first.

Photo: Troy Hourie


Heather said...

Hmmmmm, I thought you were going to post about Kelly, Ellen, and I. I was anxious to see what we had done to merit a blog....I guess we will have to try harder!!:)

Catherine said...

Ha! THAT is hilarious, Heather! xoxoC

Barry said...

You laugh but I thought about it several times during the play. The plot involves a once well-to-do family of 3 sisters and a brother (age-wise, he's in the middle, unlike us) and their very unhappy domestic lives away from their beloved Moscow. But their personalities are completely unlike us... or, at least, I hope they're completely unlike us—the brother is extremely weak and foolish! As with a lot of Chekhov, the sisters spend a great deal of time pining away for their former life: "Oh, wasn't life much better when we were in Moscow and had money... but now we're poor, so we'll just have to get used to that."