There’s only one reason to see Pavol Liska’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters for the Classic Stage Company. (The temptation is to call Liska’s work an evisceration of the play Three Sisters.) You should attend if you want to expose yourself to a heavy dose of the clichés that, over the past decade or more, have attached themselves to so-called deconstructions of classic plays like fungi on tree trunks.
I won’t fully enumerate the stale strategies in play because to do so would only reignite the fury I felt while sitting through Liska’s 90-minute travesty. I’ll only say that, upon entering the theater and noticing set designer Jian Jung’s linoleum floor with its red-white-and-black geometric pattern, the audience is confronted with a view of married sister Masha (Rebecca Henderson) gazing upstage at a Moscow travel poster affixed to the brick wall — and gazing at it and gazing at it some more while she caresses herself in her red dress and high-heeled red shoes. (A recent precedent for this start-the-show-before-it-starts approach is Ivo Van Hove’s Hedda Gabler, wherein the eponymous character sat on the floor looking gloomy long before she made the delayed entrance that Henrik Ibsen plotted for her.)
Chekhov cognoscenti will understand Liska’s point for the attenuated poster viewing: It’s to plant in patrons’ heads the fact that the play’s three siblings long to leave the backwater where they’ve grown up and return to the metropolis that they left as children. Though Liska adheres to the banality of setting the action in the present — Irina (Anne Gridley) is given a television for her 21st birthday celebration — he hasn’t considered that, nowadays, the frustrated young-but-aging-fast women could hop a train, reach town in 20 minutes, and see for themselves that contemporary Moscow isn’t what they’ve cracked it up to be.
Such easy access might shut them up, but Liska doesn’t want to quiet these sad sacks, who are especially sad in Anka Lupes styleless modern-day togs and red shoes for each sis. He wants the ladies and, indeed, everyone on stage to indulge in that other besetting cliché of updated versions: to play the characters’ subtextual anger by shouting loudly. He has them yelling at the top of their lungs whenever climactic moments loom. Eventually, the play becomes a scream fest. “I’m bored, bored, bored” Masha blasts at her feckless husband, Kulygin (Mario Quesada). “I’m happy, happy,” Kulygin blasts back.
There’s nothing fresh here in Liska using sound (Kristin Worral is the sound designer) — but not lighting (Tim Cryan is the lighting designer) — to create unexpected effects and moods. The whir of helicopter blades resounds when the soldiers, whom the sisters hate to see leave their dismal burg, are moving out; it’s as if they are American forces quitting Vietnam. Happily, Worral doesn’t throw in one of the melodramatic arias from Miss Saigon, but this is not to say that the audience is spared a Hit Parade: Throughout the show, snippets of Karen Carpenter crooning the Hal David-Burt Bacharach ballad “Close to You” fill the air as ironic commentary on the sisters’ longing to be close to one another and to the insipid men in their lives.
As if all of the above wasn’t bad enough, why do the sisters repeatedly stick their behinds up at the audience when putting on or taking off their red shoes? What, moreover, is the rationale behind the focus on shoes? (The actors are always wiping their feet upon entering from what is supposedly the street.) And, by the way, why does Colonel Vershinin (Zachary Oberzan) wear corporal’s stripes on his olive-drab military jacket?
In employing the catalogue of clichés, Liska — who was born in Skalica, Slovakia — gives the impression of being obligated by birth to perpetuate the tactics of contemporary European directors. Once upon a time 20 or 40 years ago, freestyle revamping may have been the way to flog new life into old dramas (or comedies, as Chekhov styled his works). That time has passed, and pretending that it hasn’t insults audiences.Since productions like Liska’s assume that there’s something fake about acting in, say, the Stanislavski-Chekhov mode, we now have the New School of Non-Acting. The implication is that non-acting is more real — but, of course, it isn’t. Unmodulated bellowing and disregard for the nuances of human emotions are detrimental to any play.
So this Three Sisters is populated to a man and woman by actors who would likely never get past a first audition for a traditional presentation of the Chekhov piece. Their work here is so bad that audience members may take to silently determining the worst of the lot. It’s Anne Gridley, pouting as Irina; no, it’s Rebecca Henderson, ranting as Masha; no, it’s Walker Lewis, babbling as infantile brother Andrey; no, it’s Zachary Oberzan as an impossibly uncharismatic Vershinin. But the true culprit is director Liska, who has allowed 10 young actors to appear hopelessly amateurish.
According to a program note from Classic Stage Company artistic director Brian Kulick and executive director Jessica R. Jenen, Liska’s Three Sisters is the first in a series called “On the Verge.” On the verge of what, I’d like to know. Perhaps on the verge of going out of business, if the company continues to offer unedifying, reckless productions of this sort.