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Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is a window on the Russian soul
An argument has been going on about whether Anton Chekhov’s plays are comedies or tragedies since they were written. Chekhov himself came down firmly in the comedy camp, and Sherry Lansing, who is directing the version of the playwright’s “Three Sisters” opening May 20, definitely agrees.
“When we did our first read-through, we laughed all the way through the first act,” she says. Of course the comedy is bittersweet, but that, she says, is itself a window into the Russian sense of humor. “I think there is a sort of cultural tradition of ‘performing’ the ‘tragedies’ of your life,” she explains.
“Three Sisters”, always rumored to be based to some degree on the three Bronte sisters and their hapless brother, Branwell, tells the story of four siblings whose mother and father are both dead. They are members of the fast-decaying aristocratic class (the play premiered in 1901, 16 years before the Revolution), and their oft-expressed longing is to move back to Moscow from the provincial town their father relocated them to before he died.
“The play is really about how we do not appreciate what we have in front of us…how the grass is always greener somewhere else,” Lansing says. “The characters talk a great deal about happiness and when and how they will have it.”
There are some interesting parallels between the Russia of Chekhov’s day and the Russia constantly in the news now. “Russia had fought—and lost—the Crimean War about 45 years earlier. They were trampled by Europe, yet they were always trying to catch up to Europe,” Lansing says. All of Chekhov’s major plays involve people who cannot let go of the past, and, says Lansing, “ there is always someone who comments that ‘all we do is sit around, play cards and drink vodka.’” Yet in the end of “Three Sisters”, the sisters do, in fact, decide to move on, even if their futures are not what they had once hoped they would be.
Lansing’s production at Chatt State features members of all ten graduating classes from the decade-old Professional Actors Training Program (Bridgett Bryant, John Thomas Cecil, Gioia Fazzini, Tommy Goddard, Apryl Hughes, Jessie Knowles, Roman Penney and Ryne Williams) Chatt State theatre faculty/staff members Bob Hobgood and Rex Knowles and guest artists Stephanie Goddard, Becki Jordan, Doug May and Taylor Williams. It’s set in the original time period, but Lansing selected a little-used 1901 translation of the play and is encouraging her actors to adapt the language for their concepts of their characters.
“In doing this, I know I’ve asked people who are not writers to stretch themselves,” she says, “but many of them are loving the chance to do this and giving the words such life.” And in fact, she adds, “Chekhov’s work, more than any other writer, adapts itself to the actor playing the role. Each production is unique because of that quality.”
To the occasional criticism that “nothing ever happens in Chekhov’s plays”, Lansing begs to differ. “In ‘Three Sisters”, we see four days in the course of four years, and each time, something eventful is happening.”
“After us they’ll fly in hot air balloons, coat styles will change, perhaps they’ll discover a sixth sense and cultivate it, but life will remain the same, a hard life full of secrets, but happy. And a thousand years from now man will still be sighing, “Oh! Life is so hard!” and will still, like now, be afraid of death and not want to die.” — from “Three Sisters”
7:30 p.m. May 30, 31, June 6, 7;
2:30 p.m. June 8.
Humanities Theatre, Chattanooga State, 4501 Amnicola Highway.
Reservations and more information, (423) 697-3247.