Theater review: Vivienne Benesch's first production as artistic director of PlayMakers is a fresh, indicting take on Chekhov | Arts

Theater review: Vivienne Benesch's first production as artistic director of PlayMakers is a fresh, indicting take on Chekhov

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Arielle Yoder and Allison Altman in PlayMakers Rep’s production of Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Libby Appel. - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER
  • photo by Jon Gardiner
  • Arielle Yoder and Allison Altman in PlayMakers Rep’s production of Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Libby Appel.
Three Sisters
★★★★ 1/2
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
Through Feb. 7


In a prosperous society it’s easy to forget the taste of ashes—their acrid presence on the tongue contrasting with their lack of substance to the touch. That forgetfulness, as much as the problems of language, can make Anton Chekhov’s last three plays, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, read like documents from a different world.

In a sense, they are. By 1900, Chekhov knew he was writing at the end of an age-old Russian social order. His central characters are members of a privileged class who have coasted on inherited, and now quickly vanishing, wealth and influence. They are clearly in retreat, never using those resources to build or better themselves, their families, or their communities.

In a striking, sometimes shattering production, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s new artistic director, Vivienne Benesch, candidly assesses the fragility of the bell jar where siblings Andrei, Masha, Olga, and Irina have dwelled for eleven years, in a small Russian town, far from their beloved childhood home in Moscow.

At the outset, one year after the death of their father, a colonel in the Russian army, their social station has already slipped. The sisters notice how few visitors they’ve had since the poorly attended funeral, and they are shocked after their longtime servants are reassigned. But none of this has much impact on their disdain for their provincial surroundings or their abiding belief that such reversals are temporary inconveniences before an inevitable return to Moscow.

These cognitive dissonances are dwarfed by the society-wide disconnections Chekhov dissects. He documents an intelligentsia grown indolent—unable, despite its learning, to determine any viable direction forward. The hapless Andrei (kvetching Benjamin Curns), brother of the titled characters, complains that his body is “bloated with all that education." Masha (Arielle Yoder) calls it “a burden, like an extra finger.” An idealistic Irina and her fruitless suitor, Nikolai, rhapsodize on working-class life as only those who’ve never experienced it can: "It must be so wonderful to be ... someone who rises at daybreak and builds roads,” Irina gushes, concluding, “I’m as desperate to begin work as a thirsty man craves water.”

Nikolai doesn’t know the truth of his own words when he predicts that “a big storm ... will blow away laziness, indifference, [and] prejudice against the workers.” It did indeed—in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Chekhov keeps hinting at a radical reordering of social values to come. Battery commander Vershinin (Joshua David Robinson), freshly arrived from Moscow, speculates that future generations may well find the cultural beliefs of his day “strange, stupid, awkward, and maybe even sinful.” Yes—but getting to that enlightened point is the problem.

Libby Appel’s 2012 adaptation is more fluid and conversational than earlier translations, offering modern immediacy in lieu of stilted discourse. Characters and audience members are all interrogated: “When did we start being boring, grey, dull, lazy, indifferent, useless, and unhappy?” Andrei looks out at us and demands. Benesch poses equally pressing questions throughout her fourth PlayMakers production (after guest directing In the Next Room in 2011, Red in 2012, and Love Alone in 2014), and her first since being named artistic director. A socially conscious creator, she is clearly interested in gender roles, the life of the underclass, and the fate of a society that has devalued manual labor.

The parallels between that society and ours invite more than momentary contemplation. By the end of Three Sisters, a troupe including Ray Dooley, Daniel Pearce, and Carey Cox have shown us a group of tragic figures, naked in their own naiveté and that of their culture, whose dreams have been crushed by an inconvenient and merciless reality.


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