BWW REVIEW: O-M-G! MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW at Williamstown Theatre Festival Is Like Wicked Effing Funny
After Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced in 2015 it would commission 36 playwrights to translate the Shakespeare canon into modern-day English; outrage erupted by Shakespeare "purists" and a dialogue was born on understanding the differences between translation and adaptation.
While work at Oregon Shakespeare Festival continues as planned, playwright Halley Feiffer has been working on converting another classic. Chekhov's THREE SISTERS. Now titled MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW (henceforth called MOSCOW), the play received a world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival under the direction of Trip Cullman. Even though the original text of THREE SISTERS is in another language, unlike Shakespeare, MOSCOW is now having a moment similar to what Oregon Shakespeare Festival experienced two years ago.
Feiffer began her translation by keeping the skeleton of MOSCOW the same as THREE SISTERS. We are still in Russia at the turn of the century and the core of her play remains focused on the unending quest for happiness filtered through the lives of the Prozorovs Sisters; Olga, Masha, and Irina. The distinct difference is the language. Here, our Chekhovian characters speak and act in a wicked modern tongue full of enough profanity and satire to make a Tarantino film look G-rated.
Harsh, cutting language should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Feiffer's work. Her past plays I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD and HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND THEN KILL THEM (she's not one for brevity) are all jam packed with an intoxicating combination of bitter rage and absurd comedic situations. I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD is one of the most verbally violent plays I've read and HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND THEN KILL THEM is relentless in its depiction of toxic childhood friendships. Feiffer's talent for composing razor-sharp dialogue makes her a notable stand out amongst other up-and-coming playwrights. Her work continues to improve upon with each new play, so it's not surprising to learn MOSCOW is Feiffer's strongest play to date.
The decision to replace acceptEd English language translations of THREE SISTERS with a millennial lexicon is an enormous risk, but the threat of failure only triumphs if Feiffer fails to justify her choices. Not only does she avoid the pitfall, she manages to elevate her dialogue in remarkable ways. Her success arrives in choosing to boil all of Chekhov's subtext to the surface level. In doing so, she rips off the masks these characters wear and addresses their selfish motivations head on. The characters are now conscious of their circumstances, and while they remain stuck the way Chekhov intended, they now act as their sarcastic narrator. The choice turns Chekhov's theme of unfulfilled desires on its head and unlocks the absurdist humor in the original script.
MOSCOW is also meta-theatrical in acknowledging the preconceived frustrations an audience may have with Chekhov. Ever read a Chekhov play and get confused who is who and what their relationship is with, um, whats-her-name? You're not alone:
Wait who's Alexander Ignatych?
Oh, sorry. I get confused. With all the names.
Ever feel like his characters frequently repeat themselves? Feiffer has Kulygin reminding others nine times he's a Latin teacher and everyone on stage is sick of hearing about Vershinin's wife and two little girls.
What does he talk about?
Ummm himself? Mostly? And his wife. And his two little girls. "I have a wife! I have two little girls!" Watch, he'll say literally that exact thing I just said? As soon as he gets here. Like a zillion times.
Under the direction of Trip Cullman, MOSCOW is a coruscating blend of juxtaposing anachronisms, fearless of being nasty and messy, and shows the heights theatre can reach when a playwright's singular voice is fleshed out by a director's pastiche concept.
From Paloma Young's costumes of bargain bin finds and rehearsal skirts to the cheap laminate flooring, folding chairs, and overhead projector (remember those?) in Mark Wendland's set, no two elements match. Cullman drops his MOSCOW into an inescapable classroom from hell resembling the spiteful imagination of some bratty 7th grader making haste of their English teacher's lesson plan.
Our three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina played by Rebecca Henderson, Cristin Milioti, and Tavi Gevinson, respectively, are all brutally human, hilarious, and honest as they maneuver from start to finish in this crazy world. Henderson's blistering portrayal of Olga's self-deprecating humor earned some of the loudest gasps from the audience and Milioti's physicality in a romantic scene with her husband, Kulygin (Ryan Spahn) was a masterclass in slapstick comedy. Gevinson's choice to color Irina with a raspy, worn out voice expresses her incessant complaining at the crippling frustration she faces in life.
Thomas Sadoski as Andrey, older brother to the three sisters, sharply traces his character's downward progression from a respected man to a parody of himself thanks to one night of wild sex with his lover and eventual wife, Natasha, played by the excellent Jeanine Serralles. (Their sex scene is the pinnacle of MOSCOW's outrageousness.) Both Sadoski and Serralles have commanding stage presence and consistently find new, extreme choices to convey character status.
As exciting it is to see a world premiere in near pristine condition, there are a few blemishes to be found. Sheaun McKinney's Vershinin needs to continue poking at his character's ambition. His affection for Masha appeared passive which contradicts Vershinin's philosophical core. He also doesn't have as much fun with the "I have a wife and two little girls" joke the way Spahn has with Kulygin's "I teach Latin."
Cullman's jet propelled pacing does justify itself given the ethos he creates on stage, however, the moments where characters are finally making course changing decisions needed further clarity. Several times, the character's internal conflict was clouded by the explosiveness of the pacing and rapid-fire line delivery. This criticism doesn't take away from the comprehension of MOSCOW since Feiffer isn't trying to say something new with her translation as she's trying to reinforce, in a new way, what Chekhov meant over a century ago.
Much like the reaction to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's translation project, the critical response to Williamstown Theatre Festival's commission of a Chekhov translation has been downright unfair. The Boston Globe's discrediting remark, "Feiffer would no doubt like to think it's all terribly edgy" by Don Aucoin casts a disparaging and almighty tone. Berkshire Edge's J. Peter Bergman's offensive comment in his review led to a public apology and over 100 responses in the comment section. The dispute also extends beyond a few critics out of touch with the pulse of American theatre. At my performance, 40% of the house was gone by intermission and I watched an older man yell at a younger lady for laughing throughout act one. "It's not funny!" he proclaimed while shaking his finger in her face.
There's no doubt polarizing reactions will continue between different demographics if MOSCOW has a second life (it should!). But, until we figure out how to bring these perspectives together in a civilized platform, we will be left reciting Tuzenbach's famous line, "In a million years life will be just the same; it doesn't change, it remains stationary." Or, for those of us born after 1990, the line becomes, "But NOTHING WILL ACTUALLY REALLY CHANGE!"