With the possible exception of a toothpick stuck up your urethra, there's nothing worse than a poorly done Anton Chekhov play. Unlike the toothpick, though, where at least you feel alive, the pain one gets from a lackluster Chekhov production is soul-deadening ennui.
The real problem with Chekhov is his reputation. As the academics will tell you, he's the Father of Psychological Realism in Modern Theater, so most directors quiver and genuflect and bend over backward to infuse his plays with Depth and Solemnity and Realism. They litter their productions with yawning pauses. They breathe great importance and meaning into every glance and word. They romanticize the suffering of his characters. It's boring, pretentious, lifeless and a big waste of time.
They forget that sadness and gloom are only two of the elements in Chekhov's atmosphere. There is also joy and hope and even a great love for humanity, a compassion for his bumbling, stumbling, neurotic characters. Of all the great modern dramatists, Chekhov's laugh in the abyss is the most genuine.
It's that laughter, that sense of humor in the face of life's apparent meaninglessness, that is most right in Cal State Fullerton's current production of Chekhov's 1901 play The Three Sisters. Under Donn Finn's insightful direction, this is a warm, funny and relevant production, easily the most entertaining Chekhov on a local stage in years.
That humor also makes this production quite faithful to the playwright's intent. Chekhov considered his plays comedies; he was never pleased with the famed director Konstantin Stanislavski's premiere productions of his work at the Moscow Art Theatre, which he thought were overly sentimental.
Not that this isn't a serious play. The Three Sisters is about a family uprooted both by historical currents (they are members of a Russian rural gentry that is vanishing beneath the rising tide of the bourgeoisie) and simple facts: the head of the household is a gambler and has to mortgage the family estate.
But the plot is secondary to the characters, who range from bumbling village teachers content with their humdrum existence and cynical military doctors who believe in nothing to idealistic young men and women who dream of great futures. If there is a commonality, it's that all the characters yearn for something they are unable to achieve. They are chronically indecisive; they philosophize about life, but they don't much live it. One character asks why Russians have the deepest thoughts but lead the shallowest lives. The fact he's even asking the question may supply the answer.
This production is helped considerably by Richard Nelson's translation, which updates the language just enough (it's great to finally hear a Chekhov character yell, "Goddamn it") without losing the playwright's sense of rhythm or poetry.
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Finn is also assisted by his cast, most of whom are college-level and range from capable to excellent. Standouts include Rita Rene's oldest sister, Olga; James Knudsen's cynical Dr. Chebutykin; Matt Sullivan's troubled military officer Vershinin; and Artie O'Daly's sincere Tusenbach.
The brightest star, however, is a guest artist: Svetlana Efremova-Reed. Born in Russia and trained in St. Petersburg, and a frequent sight on South Coast Repertory's two stages, this is an actress who had better be damn good in a Chekhov play. Her character, Masha, is arguably the key sister in this play, and Efremova-Reed's vibrant, energetic performance proves it. She captures both her character's pathos and moments of unbridled joy. She is funny and sensual, her radiant personality and sexy looks making her plight of being married to an unimaginative functionary all the more distressing. (Efremova-Reed performs the role only through Sunday, at which point Hilary Russell-Baur takes over.)
The play still bogs down in the wordier sections, particularly Acts 3 and 4, the latter of which seems endless. But the fact that I didn't feel like checking my watch until the play was nearly over is a victory in itself, made sweeter by the fact that for once I actually cared about these whining, talkative characters.
The Three Sisters at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theater, Nutwood Avenue & State College Boulevard, Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 6:30 p.m. Through Oct. 15. $6-$8.