Going to Moscow?

The luminous playwright Sarah Ruhl has been a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, and to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in particular, where director Les Waters helmed her breathtaking Eurydice and Glickman Award-winning In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which went on to become her Broadway debut. Now, just as Actors Ensemble of Berkeley is giving her mammoth Passion Play its belated West Coast premiere across town, Ruhl and Waters are reunited at Berkeley Rep with Ruhl’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s 1901 classic Three Sisters.

Natalia Payne and Keith Reddin in Three Sisters. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In the play, Chekhov revisits some favorite themes, of idle, highly educated privileged people bored and desperately miserabel in the country. The titular three sisters (and their brother, who doesn’t rate the title) came from Moscow 11 years ago and can’t shut up about how much they want to go back.  Hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t have someone in the family chafing at the backwater town they live in and moaning about how much they want to move to Moscow, where the real life is. But of course they never actually do anything to get there.

Heather Wood as ingénue Irina starts off going on and on about how happy she is. It won’t last.” For us three sisters, life has not been beautiful,” she says not much later. “It chokes us, like weeds.” In that same speech she says “we need to work—that’s why we’re so unhappy,” and then proceeds to be miserable in a variety of jobs for most of the rest of the play. Wendy Rich Stetson is rather dull as eldest sister Olga, a schoolteacher, and because the play opens with a long expository monologue by her, it seems at first as if it’s going to be a long night.

Natalia Payne as testy middle sister Masha seems to barely put up with them, or indeed with almost anything around her. “What a miserable goddamn life,” she says. Much like her namesake in Chekhov’s Seagull, she’s an acerbic malcontent married to a nebbishy schoolteacher who adores and annoys her. Keith Reddin is terribly sympathetic as her husband Kulygin, good-hearted but a terrible bore, who goes on and on about what a good woman she is even though he’s nowhere near as oblivious as he pretends to be. Meanwhile Masha fixates on Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin, the new guy from Moscow, even though they’re both married. The way she stares at him is unnerving in itself, not just with fascination but also the vaguely disturbed look of trying to remember something that’s nagging at you, and she lights up to near-giddiness when it seems he may feel for her as well. Bruce McKenzie has a mild, melancholy charisma as Vershinin, who often exclaims “we might as well philosophize” and holds forth about how much better the world will be in the future, long after they’re gone.

Fresh from another Chekhov role in Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull, Alex Moggridge looks terribly ill at ease as the sisters’ weak-willed brother, Andrei. Recent ACT grad Emily Kitchens is an absolute delight as Andrei’s bride Natasha, a maddeningly awkward flibbertigibbet who’s high-strung, desperate to please, and ultimately a ghastly person.

The sisters’ late father was a colonel, and the only company they seem to enjoy is that of the soldiers who hang around their house. Local Shakespearean veteran James Carpenter is tender and occasionally haunting as the doting, drunk old doctor who can’t remember how to practice medicine. Thomas Jay Ryan (of several Hal Hartley movies) is the philosophical, self-effacing Tuzenbach, who’s incidentally a baron and is generally agreed to be unattractive but clearly isn’t. Sam Breslin Wright hovers between amusing and deeply disturbing as Solyony, a mocking, peevish boor who swears he only gets obnoxious in company. David Abrams and Cobe Gordon hang about as a couple of other scruffy soldiers. Aurora Theatre founder Barbara Oliver plays another weary Chekhovian nanny, as she did in Cal Shakes’s 2008 production of Uncle Vanya, and Richard Farrell is amusingly garrulous as the nearly deaf old messenger Ferapont.

Annie Smart’s impressive and mutable two-story set beautifully captures an elegant sitting/dining room and other parts of the large family home, and costumer Ilona Somogyi has cleverly dressed Irina always in white, Masha in black and Olga in blue. It’s interesting that musical director Julie Wolf uses something that sounds so much like Hungarian folk music between scenes, but perhaps it’s just a strikingly similar Russian version.

Based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnson-Neshati, Ruhl’s wry and poetic language complements Chekhov strikingly well, although there are a few amusingly contemporary touches such as Natasha calling her infant son “Bobikalicious,” or people talking about who’s “shtupping” whom. All in all, Waters gives the three-hour production a nicely animated staging with some truly priceless moments, such as when a lively chatting and eating group sees someone bring out a camera, and then they stand very formally around the table until the photo has been snapped. Like all his plays, Chekhov called Three Sisters a comedy, and although everyone in it is desperately unhappy and life is terribly hard and bleak (again, like all his plays), this production makes it especially easy to see the humor in it.

Three Sisters
Through May 22
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #37 of 2011, attended April 16.

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