Life is hard. Life is hard and long. Life is hard and long and cold and pointless, and so it shall be for our descendants a thousand years from now, until at last, perhaps, the mystery of creation is revealed. Until then, we must suffer and endure. Any respite from said suffering and endurance shall be brief, and shall chiefly take the form of alcoholism, gambling, infidelity, and should we be so lucky, duels.
No wonder Anton Chekhov thought his plays were comedies!
Constellation’s Theatre Company’s new production of his Three Sisters finds some levity amid its pervasive existential gloom, but not nearly enough of it to prevent this handsome but staid production from feeling like a march through the Russian winter. That isn’t automatically a reason to stay away, but we don’t feel the weight of its tragedy, either — the characters seem to be miserable mostly because their creator says so. The result, despite a handful of memorable performances, feels listless and underdeveloped.
A chronicle of malaise and compromise among the Russian upper class, the play is a complete expression of Chekhov’s character-and-subtext driven ethos of drama. It’s 1901, and the clan Prozorov is living in a rural town distinguished only by the presence of a garrison. The three sisters (and their brother, too) all want to go back to cosmopolitan Moscow, where they grew up, but they keep company with the soldiers to stave off the boredom they (and the troops) discuss openly.
Irena, youngest of the sisters, and Tuzenbach, a lieutenant who’s stuck on her, dream aloud of a more egalitarian society, romanticizing the dignity of labor the way overworked Americans romanticize vacations. Middle sister Masha is trapped in a loveless marriage and takes up with the soulful Lt. Col. Vershinin, whose become inured to his own wife’s regular suicide attempts. Their fortunes and those of the play’s many, many other characters, unravel by inches over the course of five years of their time and three hours of yours.
Three Sisters is an odd choice for Constellation to tackle. Sure, it has a big cast, and its in-the-round set and costumes (by A.J. Guban and Ivania Stack, respectively) are as admirable as ever. But there’s little opportunity here for the troupe to capitalize on its other strengths: stylized movement, music, the agreeable weirdness of tone that’s made prior efforts like 2007’s The Arabian Nights, or last year’s delightful farce A Flea in Her Ear so intoxicating. For all the Vodka downed in this show, the audience remains stone sober through interminable arguments over what life is for, whether happiness exists, whether we exist. (I drift, therefore I am.)
Director Allison Arkell Stockman has plenty of experience wrangling huge companies in complicated scenes, but here it’s the two-person moments that are most transporting. When Masha and Vershinin (Catherine Deadman and Michael John Casey, both terrific), are alone together, you feel the room’s temperature change.
Brian Hemmingsen is avuncular and sad as an aged Army doctor who’s forgotten his medical training. As a volatile captain forever trying to mask the stink on his hands with emergency applications of cologne, Mark Krawczyk is believably unhinged.
Other personnel choices are more questionable: Admittedly, Chekhov has put directors in a bind by describing Tuzenback as so homely that his appearance literally makes the eldest sister weep. But Billy Finn, the actor in the part, might be the handsomest dude in the ensemble. Maybe that’s Stockman’s way of tipping us off that mere words aren’t to be trusted in Chekovland. If so, the production could have benefitted from more such bold inversions.
Three Sisters is at Source, 1835 14th St. NW, through Feb. 21. Tickets are available here.
This review appears in today’s Examiner.