A scene from Three Sisters
(© Viktor Vasiliev)
A scene from Three Sisters
(© Viktor Vasiliev)
One would expect an esteemed Russian troupe like the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg to know its way around the plays of Anton Chekhov. Still, the first half of director Lev Dodin's rendering of the playwright's masterful Three Sisters, now at BAM Harvey Theater, is curiously inert.

And while Dodin's staging of the work -- performed in Russian with English supertitles -- may suit the mood of the play, it nevertheless thwarts an audience's natural craving for forward motion.

Designer Alexander Borovsky presents the dun clapboard façade of the Prozorov sisters' home almost like a barricade: it presses forward incrementally between acts, ending up close to the proscenium, as if encaging the audience. As a result, all the interactions take place out front, and mostly on the stoop. The constrained staging certainly drives home the stultification that everyone complains about; but it also seems to bespeak a lack of trust in Chekhov's text.

Every interpretation of this pivotal play seems to shift its primary focus toward one sister over the others, whether it be the work-weary eldest sister, Olga (a perhaps overly resigned Irina Tychinina) or the love-starved middle-sibling Masha (Elena Kalinina, veering vertiginously from elation to despair), stuck in an unhappy marriage to the clueless pedant Kulygin (Sergey Vlasov).

Whether because of the director's intent or the strength of the actors involved, this version seems to linger on the youngest, Irina (Ekaterina Tarasova, whose sharp eyes seem to register every shifting mood) -- and especially her decision to accept the marriage proposal of Baron Tuzenbach (Sergey Kuryshev, exuding a heart-deep decency), who is besotted, yet patient, seizing upon Irina's foot as an object of worship and working his way up her body.

Also claiming his moment with an unanticipatedly intense focus is Alexander Bykovsky as Andrey Prozorov, the once promising and adored brother who has settled into a life of cuckolded mediocrity, and who passionately defends the honor of his wife, the far-from-saintly Natasha (Ekaterina Kleopina, insufficiently vulgar), as if his own life depended on the illusion.

Another bonus of this production is that one hears some of the lines -- familiar to many theatergoers -- in a more everyday context than usual, whether it's the alcoholic physician Dr. Chebutikin (Alexander Zavyalov) entertaining a nihilism that he's far too fond to believe in fully or the visiting Colonel Vershinin (Igor Chernevich) explaining his dreams of a more enlightened populace.

Indeed, whatever the production's shortcomings, the ensemble members play off one another with the kind of ease and subtlety only a solid repertory company can muster.