BWW Review: Maly Drama Theatre's Unforgettable, Explosive THREE SISTERS at the Kennedy Center

BWW Review:  Maly Drama Theatre's Unforgettable, Explosive THREE SISTERS at the Kennedy Center

Anton Chekhov, the great Russian satirist and dramatist, once admitted he had no idea how to write for ingenues. True, he had young women in every play-it was expected, after all-but he struggled with how to write for them. Their paucity of lines has created a theatrical tradition in which many of Chekhov's most compelling roles are handed to waifs who market in the character's youth and naiveté to weepy, soap-opera effect.

That the times, both here and in Russia, no longer call for insipid ingenues goes almost without saying. Which makes it all the more gratifying to report that the role of young Irina in Chekhov's Three Sisters, as produced by the Maly Drama Theatre under the masterful direction of Lev Dodin, is truly fierce and unforgettable. Irina's high ideals, tempered by bitter disappointment and her ultimate resignation, are embodied powerfully by Elizaveta Boyarskaya. Impulsive and impatient, she devours the stage whole, now wailing, now roaring her frustrations. But when fate deals her the most brutal blow of all she meets it with a shrug and a cigarette, whose smoke trails into the air as the play comes to its close.

The action of Three Sisters centers on the Prozorov family, whose patriarch-an army officer-had moved from Moscow to a small provincial town some eleven years before. When the play opens, father has been dead for one year, and as the family prepares for Irina's name day (the Russian equivalent of a birthday), there are plans afoot for the Prozorov children - three sisters and their brother, Andrei -to move back to the capital. Although her elder siblings have vivid memories of the city, Irina's dreams of Moscow are made more intense by the fact that she was only 6 when they moved away. So as the idea of Moscow begins to recede into a mere memory for her elders, Irina becomes more fixed in her resolve.

What makes the Maly production of Three Sisters so compelling is Dudin's ability to show how Chekhov's small-town characters, mired in the mores and beliefs of 1890's provincial Russia, anticipate our own thwarted dreams. Surprises abound, as we discover the inner fire that burns in people we thought we knew as humble, down-home folk. As Kulygin, Masha's husband and a local Latin teacher, Sergey Vlasov takes a bland, pendantic character and fills him with pride and a touch of arrogance-which only heightens the heartbreak as he realizes his wife is having an affair. And when he opens up his heart to Masha's elder sister Olga (the powerful Irina Tychinina), confessing that he could have married her instead, Olga's response is positively cathartic: a kiss that is as passionate as it is hopeless.

There is a dark humor at work here; consider Soleniy, an Army captain competing for Irina's affections. He spouts poetry with a vengeance, and so closely identifies with Lermontov (one of Russia's many tragic poets) he shoves a photo into everyone's hands, forcing them to compare his profile with that of the poet. Stanislav Nikolskiy gives us an explosive Soleniy, in a performance that dances on the edge of drama and satire-just what Dr. Chekhov would have ordered. No sooner do we fear him than we laugh at his pomposity.

The couplings here - misdirected romance is a Chekhov specialty - are more explosive and emotionally draining than any I have seen in past productions. Even Irina's final embrace with Baron Tusenbach, her fiancée, manages the feat of raising and dashing one's hopes at the same time. Forget what you've heard; for Dodin, a kiss is never, ever, just a kiss. It is a novel in miniature.

Another unexpected but pleasant presence here is Sergey Kruyshev's turn as Chebutikin, the constantly-drunk, completely ineffective army doctor. When the town goes up in flames he can be counted on to disappear into this bottle; and when the final tragedy strikes he straddles the roof over the Prozorov's front door, grinning. His mere presence offers an ironic counterpoint to the sisters' final soliloquys as the play draws to a close.

Alexander Borovsky's set design is simple, and appropriately oppressive; a grey clap-board house, with tall window frames which-with the masterful lighting of Damar Ismagilov-also serve as the site for living portraits - portraits so vivid, it's tempting to call them secular icons. As Irina's desperation to leave town increases, the house moves ominously downstage, reducing her mobility to nearly nil.

Throughout Russia's history, classic plays have been used as a vehicle to express the mood of the public. In Soviet times, Chekhov could be counted on to make wry, sarcastic comments about how the Communist elites had run things into the ground; now, in the Putin era, Maly offers its own critique of Russian society. As before, there's no need to point out the 800-lb. gorilla in the room; one only needs to note the barriers to happiness that everyone faces because of its presence.

Production Photo, left to right: Elizabeta Boyarskaya as Irina, Ksenia Rappoport as Masha, Irina Tychinina as Olga. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Performance Time: 3 hours with one intermission.

Three Sisters runs through April 30 in the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or visit:

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From This Author Andrew White

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