Fifty years ago, the brilliant theater critic Eric Bentley asked a simple question: Why was Russian playwright Anton Chekhov so popular in an English-speaking theater culture that adored brain-dead, commercially viable plays? Chekhov (according to Bentley) wrote "plotless, monotonous, drab and intellectual" plays, yet he was always being produced somewhere. And it's no different today. Chekhov's plays haven't gotten any sexier, more exciting or less redundant—and the commercial theater hasn't suddenly discovered a soul—but the man is still everywhere. The answer now may be the same one that Bentley came up with: the theater remembers Chekhov when it remembers its conscience.
None of the Great Playwrights shared Chekhov's deep fondness for human foibles—or his keen sense that even though we're all fumbling idiots groping for answers to questions we can rarely articulate, everything will be okay because at least we're all in the same predicament. This Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of Three Sisters (one of Chekhov's five recognized masterpieces) preserves that compassionate vision of humanity's confused and restless nature, as it should—but it also preserves the monotony and plotlessness that were the man's stock-in-trade.
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Naturally, Sisters is a dense play. Chekhov wrote like God created icebergs—what you see is merely a fraction of what lies beneath the surface. That surface is the Prozorov family, a clan of highly educated Muscovites who, 11 years before the play begins, left their urban digs for life in the provinces. All they want now is to go back, but fate—as fate so often does in Russia—dictates otherwise. So they spend day after boring day doing nothing or kicking around with the soldiers stationed in town. It's a bleak existence: every character is paralyzed in some way. Some are chained to the past; others are trapped in loveless marriages, worthless jobs or useless careers. And they all yearn for something more, whether it's the cosmopolitan energy of Moscow or just some real work they can wrap their hands around. None of them gets it—except for Natasha (a lustily vindictive Leesa Beck), easily the vilest character onstage, who burrows her way into the household and inexorably takes it over.
Yet even though they're indecisive, whiny and in dire need of a Prozac enema, the characters feel painfully real, a credit to Marla Gam-Hudson's production and her well-chosen cast (Sophie Areno's Irina shines the brightest; rarely does this play feel like it belongs so strongly to the youngest sister). But even though this is a lively and spirited production that makes Chekhov's gloomiest play about as light as it can get, it's way too long. Pace is an issue at times, but mostly it's the play's redundancy. Apparently, this production is using the don't-cut-a-single-word-or-you'll-be-exiled-to-theatrical-hell translation. But it's no sin to trim Chekhov. The man wrote before the delete key was invented. And if we can edit Shakespeare and the Bible, why not Chekhov?
As it is, this is a three-hour-long production that feels, well, three hours long. After the 67th speech on how boring, lifeless and weary existence is for the Prozorov family, I was ready to scream, or at least slip into my Care Bears jammies and go nighty-night. That's a shame because the psychological tension upon which Chekhov built his play collapses under its sheer bulk. By the last impassioned speech (which Chekhov meant as a criticism to his audience for meekly surrendering to the petty vulgarities of life—T.S. Eliot would have called it measuring out your life in coffee spoons), I wasn't on the edge of my seat. I was dreaming of caffeine.
Three Sisters at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through March 23. $15; students, $13; student rush tickets, $5 (released at curtain time when available).