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Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow

Halley Feiffer finds a gold mine of caustic humor in Chekhov's classic drama Three Sisters.

Rebecca Henderson (Olga), Cristin Milioti (Masha), and Tavi Gevinson (Irina) in Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, directed by Trip Cullman at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
(© Daniel Rader)

Depressive Russians have never been as hilarious as they are in Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, Halley Feiffer's modern(ish) take on Chekhov's classic drama Three Sisters, which played at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The story's setting remains the same: We're placed in the Russian countryside at the turn of the 20th century where the members of the Prozorov family languish in their misery. Here, we find the same infidelity, the same alcoholism, and the same inexplicable desire to return to Moscow where life is surely better. Feiffer has replaced the poetic dialogue with shamelessly self-indulgent millennial jargon to take the romantic bloom off everyone's miserable rose. The result is gloriously funny and surreptitiously insightful.

Whatever your feelings about modern adaptations, Moscow… is not just an exercise in adding "like"s and "totally"s to a classic text in an effort to pander to an illiterate generation. Rather, Feiffer takes the play beat by beat (throwing in a few niche Chekhov jokes for the nerds in the crowd), maintaining its exact skeleton but resculpting some of the flesh. Costume designer Paloma Young and set designer Mark Wendland draw a line between past and present, sampling contemporary and era-appropriate aesthetics to straddle time periods, while director Trip Cullman does the same with Feiffer's words, which are explicitly modern in form but implicitly timeless in sentiment. Together with his wickedly sharp and comedically spot-on cast, Cullman acknowledges both the absurdity and timeless wisdom in Chekhov's iconic characters, picking up the conversation the playwright started 117 years ago.

Cristin Milioti (Masha), Tavi Gevinson (Irina), Rebecca Henderson (Olga), and Sheaun McKinney (Vershinin) in a scene from the show.
(© Daniel Rader)

Olga is still the bedraggled, unmarried eldest sister — just a little more down on her physical appearance and resentful of her migraine-inducing teaching job (brilliantly played by the stone-faced Rebecca Henderson. Cristin Milioti cakes on the dark eyeliner as middle sister Masha, reciting her poetry to dramatic lighting cues (designed by Ben Stanton) and expressing unequivocal physical repulsion to her husband, Kulygin (the fabulous Ryan Spahn, sucking up his character's misery with delusions of happiness). The hunky soldier Vershinin (played by the striking Sheaun McKinney) gives Masha a taste of passion, but seeing as he's married, not much happiness lies in store there. Tavi Gevinson, in her finest stage performance yet, rounds out the trio as the youngest Irina — a petulant child on the verge of adulthood whose only life prospect is marrying her seemingly gay best friend Tuzenbach (Micah Stock, who balances humor with an impressive amount of emotion in a character who is introduced like a Real World cast member).

Then there's the underachieving man of the Prozorov family, Andrey, who thinks he can quell his boredom by marrying Natasha (Thomas Sadoski and Jeanine Serralles are comically perfect as the doomed couple). Marriage of course just adds another layer to Andrey's despair, particularly when Natasha turns into a facsimile of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Also roaming around the property are the unskilled doctor Chebutykin (Harvy Blanks) and the socially awkward Solyony (Glenn Davis), two buffoonish characters who Feiffer interestingly gives some of the play's most poignant moments of self-reflection.

Chekhov purists may instinctively take offense at the thought of Prozorov sisters tossing around profanities, making fat jokes, and hysterically dancing around their living room singing about suicide (and yes, the stereotypical 21st-century tics do occasionally grate on the nerves). Yet, if anything, Moscow… is a reverential response to the source material, not a disrespectful affront to it. After all, it was in 1900 that Vershinin first posited that all of his generation's sufferings are for the sake of the happiness of his descendents two or three hundred years down the line.

Here we are a little over one hundred years in, and considering how familiar all the bitching and moaning in Feiffer's revamped text sounds to our 2017 ears, it's clear that mankind's happy train is not exactly running on schedule. As Feiffer's version of Masha concisely puts it, "That's what life is, I think. Just doing horrible things, and complaining about them." That doesn't seem too far off, and all signs point to that being the case for the foreseeable future. But at least now we're laughing at ourselves — and maybe Chekhov would appreciate that kind of progress.


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