2007., Toronto Soulpepper
Three sisters who break your heart
Laszlo Marton’s Soulpepper Production Tops Others By Bringing New Life To Chekhov
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Chekhov’s Three Sisters yearn to go to Moscow. It’s the one thing about them and their play that everybody knows. The first huge virtue of Laszlo Marton’s Soulpepper production is that it rescues this premise from being a theatrical joke and makes it both fresh and forceful.
Listening to the play’s opening speeches, we register the facts and the feelings as never before. We take in just how long Olga, Masha and Irina have been living in their provincial fastness, and how their lives are still dominated by the memory of their father the general who brought them here. Marton has staged this prelude formally, the cast lined up in chairs against the back wall. We seem to be suspended in time; there are even distant echoes, musical and visual, of the general’s funeral. The sisterhood’s initial hopefulness rings out clear; so do the mundane rumblings of the people around them that will eventually swallow them up. Five minutes into the play, your heart is already breaking.
Suddenly, it’s raining, and we’re firmly in present time, the sisters virtually dancing in anticipation of Irina’s name-day party. Another of the production’s signal achievements is that it makes us believe in them as siblings; they have all the closeness and all the shared jokes. It’s typical, both of them and of the production, that in the traumas of the third act, with the town on fire, they break out into a pillow fight. Olga, the reluctant headmistress and more reluctant spinster, is often played as a wraith-like figure from a different generation altogether; d’bi.young.anitafrika gives her the family passion and the family warmth; confronted with Masha’s infidelity to her husband (another teacher) she’s torn, visibly and agonizingly, between sympathy and disapproval. Megan Follows’ Masha, all nerves and irony, disintegrates before our eyes as she first yields to, then loses, the married officer Vershinin. Patricia Fagan’s Irina is a radiant study in hopefulness continually lowering its sights, forced to compromise in love and in life, and losing even what she’s settled for. The complexities of feeling that percolate within and around this family are brilliantly captured. Nicolas Billon’s English version is exceptionally lucid.
There is, as usual in Marton’s Chekhov productions, a physicality that is both exciting in itself and a huge release for the actors, whether they’re playing joy or — more frequently — desperation; sometimes it’s joy to stave off desperation. When Michael Simpson’s drunken doctor, in his great aria of self-disgust, his belly protruding over his long-johns, washes himself off, he practically drowns himself in the basin. (He also — a signature Marton motif — has an intense relationship with a chair.) A role that is often sentimentalized here takes on a new leering identity, a stubborn refusal to take anything seriously that melts for a brief moment when he shouts at Andrei, the sisters’ even more hapless brother, to get out of town fast. Kevin Mac-Donald gets electric in Andrei’s most intense sequence of self-flagellation. It’s typical of Chekhov that this should immediately be followed by a shrewish outburst from his wife, Natasha, typical of Marton that she should deliver it from a window immediately above him.
The stage is small, but Lorenzo Savoini’s brick-backed set, with the onstage candles atmospherically realized in Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, makes the room seem large. Characters huddle in corners or against walls in a frantic search for intimacy: Irina fending off the hopeful attentions of Mike Ross’s kindly bearded Baron or Andrei making his spectacularly ill-fated (because successful) proposal to Natasha.
Sarah Wilson plays Natasha’s initial shyness and later cruelty to the max, with one hysterical uncomprehending outburst that combines them. Stephen Guy-McGrath’s Soliony, the play’s other destructive outsider, has a mad spasm that’s even more frightening. In general, the company’s newer younger actors are good at the emotional extremes, less so at imposing themselves in between. The most relaxed performances come from Soulpepper’s two middle-aged statesmen: Diego Matamoros embodies all the embarrassment and irritation of Masha’s cuckolded husband, continually arriving just too late to find his wife in some kind of flagrante. Equally well-meaning and equally ineffectual — indeed the two supposed rivals spend a surprising amount of convivial time together –is Albert Schultz’s Vershinin, drifting in and out of his affair without quite knowing what’s hit him or, especially, her. His famous philosophizing is perfectly genuine — he’s Russian, after all; it’s also a mask for guilt. The lovers’ farewell is triumphantly tragicomic: she jumping into his arms; he trying to disengage himself while she clings frantically to his coat, as if that might hold him.
Even the smallest parts are well played; the two aged retainers (Dawn Greenhalgh and Les Carlson) better than well. The junior officers (James Dallas Smith, Michael Blake) are amiable spectators; even the silent maid (Jennifer Villaverde) has a validating moment of terror. Irony cuts through the play like a knife, but this isn’t one of those Chekhov productions that falls over itself to be funny; I laughed only once. Rather, it banishes gloom by giving pain its full weight and putting it in personal and historical perspective. It’s comic in the largest sense, and brimming with life. There have been some very fine productions in and around Toronto this year, but this one tops them all.