British director Donnellan satisfies with 'Three Sisters' at Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Moscow, Moscow, Moscoooow!" murmurs sick-at-heart Irina in the closing minutes of Act 1 of director Declan Donnellan's gorgeously observed "Three Sisters." It's the play's rallying cry, its articulation of eternal restlessness, here uttered by actress Nelli Uvarova with a churning anguish -- and a final "Moscow!" expressed as a sigh that gets caught wrenchingly in her throat.

An American ear may not recognize many of the words spoken in this splendid production, performed in Anton Chekhov's native tongue by a superb Russian cast. But the heart surely connects with all the meticulously realized feeling, the sense of the air being let out of inflated hopes, in a household of declining fortunes in a turn-of-the-20th-century Russian backwater.

Donnellan's "Three Sisters" -- with helpful English surtitles -- had its North American premiere Tuesday night in a lamentably brief engagement in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater; the final Washington performance of the touring production occurred Wednesday night. Unlike so many other stagings of Chekhov, which can leave you with the impression that you've passed through a reverent museum exhibit, this one exudes immediacy, the idea that these neurotic, excitable people from another place and time breathe the same oxygen as you.

The British director, whose creatively elastic company, Cheek by Jowl, has produced this version in concert with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, enters into a deeply satisfying collaboration with his Slavic ensemble. In the best interpretations, "Three Sisters" is an aching experience, funny at times but also profoundly moving, as it becomes ever clearer for the characters that the more passionately they seek, the less they'll receive.

An audience feels for their resilience, their vows to commit themselves to work, their refusals to give up. Donnellan's staging aids in our viewing them in the clearest light. His set and costume designer, Nick Ormerod, employs only the sparsest of visual elements: several large panels depicting houses or trees; a stack of dining room chairs and assorted small tables; a dollhouse-size model of a home, perhaps evoking the family's country estate, or the sisters' memories of a happier childhood. The play's intense personalities loom especially large in this landscape, whether the portrait is of the spaniel-like devotedness of Masha's husband Kulygin (Sergey Lanbamin) or the blossoming tyranny of Andrey's wife Natasha (Ekaterina Sibiryakova).

At the nexus are the sisters, steady Olga (Evgenia Dmitrieva), disconsolate Masha (Anna Khalilulina) and vibrant Irina. As they moan and fuss and flutter, you're drawn into an authentic-seeming symbiosis: When they dissolve in laughter on the floor together, giggling at the impertinent airs put on by their country bumpkin of a sister-in-law, the sensation is of three women falling into a familiar and comfortable pattern. That their contempt in this moment is laced with a perceptible dread -- Natasha is taking charge of the house in a way none of them is able -- speaks to the degree of psychological specificity in which the actresses invest their portrayals.

"Three Sisters" examines both a socioeconomic and metaphorical state of being: idleness. The play unfolds over several years in the well-to-do household of the sisters and their brother Andrey (Alexey Dadonov), in which the question of what to do with one's time -- some characters have jobs; others boast they've never held one -- seems to be as much a philosophical issue as a practical one. What's changing is the erosion of the youthful sense of life stretching in front of them forever. Andrey, for instance, once thought of as professorial material, has settled for a bureaucratic job in a small town off the beaten track.

In their orbit in this paralyzed domain are other psychically frozen people, most notably the military doctor, Chebutykin (Igor Yasulovich), a drunk so vacant he no longer empathizes with those in his care. Yasulovich gives the best account I've ever heard of the disturbing speech in which Chebutykin confesses to feeling nothing after the accidental death of a patient. "If only I didn't exist," he declares -- not out of guilt, it seems, so much as the abject meaninglessness of his life.

Donnellan's actors apply to scene after scene a crystalline clarity; you can feel the excruciating pull of opposing instincts. Khalilulina's exquisitely played Masha is a case in point. At last stealing an embrace with the man she loves, the utopian romantic Vershinin (a terrific Alexander Feklistov), she drops instantly, shockingly to the floor. Lanbamin's simpering Kulygin is there to scoop her up, and her docility suggests that she consigns herself to the unsatisfying dimensions of her fate.

The cumulative emotional effect has its payoff in the last moments of the play, in the sisters' strangely consoling faith that what they've gone through has a purpose. "One day people will know the reason for all this suffering," one of them says -- an affirmation that in this ensemble's revelatory treatment proves heartbreaking.

Three Sisters

by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Declan Donnellan; lighting, Judith Greenwood; music, Sergey Chekryzhov. With Andrey Kuzichev. Closed Wednesday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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