The name Anton Pavlovovich Chekhov may not mean all that much to many Miamians. Hell, it doesn't mean much to us either, and we call ourselves writers. But all that will change if Miami Theater Center artistic director Stephanie Ansin gets her way.
The smart, chic, and passionate linguaphile is bringing a slightly modernized adaptation of Three Sisters, a play by the 19th century Russian dramatist, author, and, uh, medical doctor to the stage of her newly renamed theater space in Miami Shores. And besides offering tip-o-the-hat-worthy performances, clever lighting and sound use, and beautiful set and costume design, this play will truly move you. And by that we mean a bunch of stage hands will come out and literally rotate the platform upon which the cozy 49-seat audience sits. This happens three times throughout the show, so bring your Dramamine if you get seasick easily.
For those who are not familiar with it, the play is centered, around - you guessed it - three sisters living in a small town in Russia. Olga (Yevgeniya Kats), the eldest, is the matriarchal figure of the household, though she's only 28 at the outset of the drama. Her younger sisters are Masha (Emily Batsford) and Irina (Diana Garle), who is the wide- and shiny-eyed baby of the family.
Their father died a year ago, and their mother presumably before that, and they now live in a grand house with their brother Andrei (Theo Reyna), where they are attended to by several servants and are frequently accompanied by a handful of soldiers. Masha, who is always clad head to toe in brooding black, is the artist of the family, and she's also the only married sister - and unhappily so. Having tied the knot to a man she thought was deep and interesting when she was a teenager, she now feels she was duped, even as her husband Kulygin (Christian T. Chan) makes unheeding attempts to convince her things are still fine between them. She makes up for it by having an affair with a dapper (and also married) soldier who sweeps into town one day and dazzles her with pearls of optimism about the world that awaits them tomorrow.
The eldest sister seems to have no hope or prospects of marriage, though she admits at one point that she "would have taken any man, as long as he was decent;" while Irena, the youngest, is often literally fighting the men off her as she holds out for her true love, whom she is certain she will meet in Moscow.
Ahhh, Moscow. You'd think it was Bora-Bora the way the women talk about it in this play. It was the city of their births and their upbringing. There, they were raised to become polyglots and concert pianists, but in their current provincial home their brains and their creative souls are fading. Irena is particularly freaked out about it, and she laments it at every turn, while her siblings preoccupy themselves with marriage, children, and extra-marital affairs. The idea of Moscow - urbane, large, anonymous and yet familiar to the sisters in its worldliness - becomes symbolic of a dream that seems impossible to fulfill. And as the sisters struggle to find happiness despite their dashed expectations, the question is raised: Is adjusting your dreams the same as giving up?
Ansin and her creative partner Fernando Calzadilla used four different versions of the play adapted by American playwrights, a translation they commissioned, and even Google Translate to to inform their version of the classic. The finished product is mostly reflective of a bygone era, but includes a few anachronisms, like a peppy modern country-folk song sung jokingly by the men in the play. Its blocking is at times almost slapstick (a maid who always scurries comically from place to place, for example), adding some lightness to what is considered by many critics a formal and depressing play.
Three Sisters is the first show the theater has put on since its rebirth as a theater aimed at adult and young audiences.
"We wanted to be able to do works like this for older audiences, and with the name "PlayGround Theatre," people had preconceptions, even about the children's shows," Ansin said. "Like they expected a fuzzy animal [as the star]. Same thing with actors - some actors were hesitant to audition because they thought it was a cheesy kids' play. And then once they would work here they would realize the rigor they were working with."
The artistic director thought the play would speak to modern Miami audiences because it's driven by themes that are still relevant, despite its age and foreign origin. And she sought to introduce Chekhov to newbies in an accessible, palatable way.
"One part of it was connecting young audiences and audiences who haven't been exposed to Chekhov, who is an important part of world theater history," said Ansin. "Then, the reason we found the play valuable beyond its historical value is the messages in the play, like women who are suffering because they don't have equal rights. These women don't have a life if they're not married. No one could travel more than 20 miles without a passport at this time in Russia, and a woman could only get a passport from her father or her husband."
Ansin said this stifled feeling is portrayed not only in the dialogue between characters, but in the on-stage action. "The caged bird [motif] comes out in the third act when Irena's having her breakdown. The 'caged bird' was the metaphor I used for her staging: every time she tries to break away from her sisters, they go towards her like they're trying to catch her, and she ends up banging herself against the armoire."
Ansin went on to say it was as much the setting of the play as the theme that made her choose it as the theater's debut work under its new, grown-up name.
"We wanted to show the new face of the theater. We wanted to make it intimate because we knew we couldn't fill this 330-seat theater for more than a day with Chekhov at this point in the Miami theater trajectory," she said. "We thought about putting the audience on stage to accommodate [a smaller group], and we thought about moving the audience instead of the stage because we're in their house, and we could just change the observers' perspective."
This intimate view is in line with the way the play was originally shown, Ansin said. "When the play first was running in Moscow, instead of saying, 'We're going to see Three Sisters, they would say 'We're going to the Proserovs. We're going to their house.'"