Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 27
Chekhov's blue periodPCPA's Three Sisters is beautiful, but depressing
BY AMY ASMAN
I was looking forward to reviewing PCPA’s production of Three Sisters—one of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces—because I wanted a meaty drama I could really sink my teeth into.
Unfortunately, I ended up biting off more than I could chew.
Granted, I’m not an expert when it comes to dissecting Chekhov’s work. He’s considered one of the premier playwrights of modern history and was one of the visionaries behind the mood theater movement. I read and performed a scene from The Cherry Orchard in college, and I remember having to ask my professor to translate quite a bit of the dramatic subtext. I wish my professor had come with me to see Three Sisters, because perhaps his insight could have helped me enjoy it more.
The titular sisters are Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorov, members of Russia’s intelligentsia, who live with their brother, Andrey, in a rural town. When we meet them, the siblings are mourning the one-year anniversary of their father’s death and questioning their place in a fluctuating world. The family is also celebrating the Name Day of Irina (Natasha Harris), the youngest sister, who dreams of moving back to her native Moscow to find meaningful work and, hopefully, a loving husband.
Irina’s youthful exuberance is infectious and causes the siblings to yearn for Moscow as well: Masha (Stephanie Philo) is stuck in a loveless marriage and longs to find fulfillment elsewhere; Olga (Elizabeth Stuart), exhausted by her work as a teacher at the local school, wishes she could find a husband; and violin prodigy Andrey (Paul Henry) is poised to become a well-respected professor at the university.
These goals seem well within the Prozorovs’ grasp; they’re educated, refined 20-somethings and the inheritors of a beautiful home and a considerable military pension. What could possibly keep them from having it all? The answer, it turns out, is: life.
As the play progresses, the prospect of moving to Moscow—and the aspirations that come with it—begins to fade. Andrey marries beneath his class to a callous and petty woman, giving up the scholarly lifestyle for a position on the local council. Irina ends up hating her job at the village telegraph office, and Olga continues to work herself sick at the school, while Masha pines away for the new commander of the local brigade.
The components of PCPA’s production are, as is often the case, admirable. Andy Hammer’s scenic design is gorgeous and perfectly captures the frozen-in-time essence of 19th century Russia’s decaying upper class. I especially enjoyed his use of ornately carved window frames, which seemed to be growing out of the stage floor. The frames made it feel like the forest was closing in on the actors and added to the play’s increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. The design also reminded me of a ship’s bow, which suited the production well because the Prozorov children act like a crew without a captain. Without their father, they are adrift; their lives are tedious and meaningless. But soon each of them is faced with a decision: swim or sink into obscurity.
The original chamber music created for the show was also very beautiful, as were the costumes (minus the soldiers’ uniforms, which made the men look like Christmas elves or festive bellhops), and the actors turned in commendable performances.
I struggled, however, to fully appreciate the show’s artistic elements because I was too distracted by the characters’ glaring personality flaws. I consider myself a rather empathic person, but I find it very difficult to sympathize with wealthy people who spend their days complaining and philosophizing. The siblings lament their dull provincial lives, but they do very little to change their situations. Rather, they lounge around on expensive furniture and fantasize about the future.
The Prozorov sisters are intelligent, but they lack the ingenuity and creativity of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters, who wrote poetry and plays to remedy their collective sense of unrest. Instead, Irina agrees to marry a man she doesn’t love; Olga accepts a promotion she doesn’t want; Masha cheats on her husband with the commander and then falls apart when he’s shipped off to a different location; and Andrey gambles away the family home.
The Pozorovs and their various companions wax poetic about a perfect future that, frankly, doesn’t exist. They decry the staggering amount of suffering in the world, yet they don’t truly suffer. They look down upon the lower classes for filling their lives with, as Andrey puts it, “vile gossip, vodka, cards, and litigiousness,” while partaking in the very same vices themselves.
“It seems to me that everything on earth is bound to change by degrees and is already changing before our eyes. In two or three hundred, perhaps in a thousand years—the time does not matter—a new, happy life will come,” one character philosophizes. “We shall have no share in that life, of course, but we’re living for it, we’re working, well, yes, and suffering for it, we’re creating it—and that alone is the purpose of our existence, and is our happiness, if you like.”
How very depressing. Like the characters in this play, I, too, hope life will evolve, and that people will stop killing each other and start caring for each other like decent human beings. But I also think there is plenty of happiness to be had in the present. True happiness depends on a person’s attitude, not a collection of things or places; it must be fought for and then nurtured. An estate in Moscow and a worthwhile career are wonderful if you can get them, but they’re never guaranteed.
The play, if anything, is a good example of how not to live your life. I, personally, didn’t need to spend three hours in a theater to appreciate that lesson. But perhaps I missed the point.
Managing Editor Amy Asman is feeling better now. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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