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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Alison De-Suggests

Posted by Alison Hallett on Wed, May 13, 2009 at 2:10 PM

Before going on vacation last week, I left several furiously underlined Post-it notes on the desks of my editorial colleagues insisting that we include Artists Rep's production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in the My, What a Busy Week! section of the paper. Matt Davis ended up writing the blurb that instructs you to go see it tonight:

The third play in a four-part Anton Chekhov project, Three Sisters takes on upper-class decay in 19th century Russia through the eyes of three dissatisfied sisters. Artists Repertory Theatre commissioned playwright Tracy Letts for this new adaptation of a timeless work with timeless themes.

But you can bet if I'd written it, it would've included a few more exclamation points, alluded to Tracy Letts' 2008 Pulitzer for August: Osage County, and referenced the last time Artists Rep tackled a Letts script—in 2005, with the excellent Bug. Maybe I would've even mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing another performance from Andrea Frankle, the foxy out-of-town actress who made her Portland debut at Artists Rep last season with a remarkable turn as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

After seeing the show on Saturday evening, I'm rescinding my recommendation. It was overly optimistic of me to think that a flashy adaptation could offer a last-ditch recovery from Artists Rep's floundering couple of seasons.

Hit the jump for some hatin'.

From fussy pageantry of the play's opening moments, it was obvious to me that I was going to have some internet 'splaining to do. The lights come up on an octagonal stage, backdropped by a forest; and one by one, a showily choreographed parade of actors sweeps grandly in from the wings, introducing the titular three sisters, their brother, and the soldiers they socialize with. The baroque introduction immediately clashes with Lett's informal adaptation, which frankly sounds as though it was translated directly from Chekhov's original script by a first-year student instructed to "freshen up" the Russian. Here's some of the contemporary slang that made it into the show: "kids," "guys," "goofy," "split," "it's no big deal," and, if my notes are to be believed, the phrase "life sucks and who cares." All of this, mind you, in a production that very much retains its historical setting, old-timey costumes and all. It was like watching a dubbed movie in which the lips don't quite sync up with the voices—the contrast between the setting and the language is jarring, but never acknowledged (much less reconciled).

Equally jarring is the emotional pitch of this production, which flails from desperate hilarity to bleak despair—both of which, of course, could easily characterize the lives of three sisters who live in a small, provincial Russian town yet want nothing more than to move to Moscow. The hysterical highs and lows accrete so quickly, though, that it's near impossible to understand or contextualize any of it. Early on in my notes I wrote down the phrase "parade of non sequiturs," and just kept underlining it as the show went on, as musical numbers and frenzied emotional outbursts equally taxed audience patience. And all the while, director Jon Kretzu paces his actors back and forth, back and forth across that damned octagonal stage—an unimaginatively literal representation of the claustrophobic scope of their world.

The actors may as well be in different plays, for which we can once again thank Kretzu's direction (some of my favorite local actors are in this play‚ Michael Mendelson and Todd Van Voris in particular, and I'm sure not blaming them for this). Andrea Frankle's drawn performance as a spinster schoolteacher is a subtle study in tension and restraint; yet Marjorie Tatum as the overbearing sister-in-law paints in the broadest conceivable strokes, subjecting the audience to fits of screeching and borderline slapstick routines as she transforms from a shy, mousy little thing into a tyrannical domestic force.

During intermission, the woman next to me turned to her date to whisper, "I'm going to propose something unorthodox. Let's leave." After giddily hatching a plan to go grab dessert and "a glass of port" (really, these are the elbows I rub every weekend), they left. I was tempted to follow them to Papa Haydn and share their lavender crème brulée—ditching this show would've been no less liberating than cutting calculus on a sunny June day, senior year of high school, to go smoke bowls at Ibach park (read: VERY LIBERATING). But, seeing as how I urged the general public to buy tickets to the show, I felt obligated to sit it out.

For a different take, read the O's review—their critic says the show "gleams and deepens over its three hours, taking us from sunlight into candlelight and shadows, where Chekhov's cruelly candid yet compassionate vision of humanity rests." That's seems, um, completely insane to me—but then, someone told me once that art is subjective (I think in reference to their body image collage?).

From now through May 24, Artists Rep is offering $10 tickets for day-of shows—hit the website, or call 241-1278 to reserve yours, if you want to weigh in on what is already a pretty controversial production.

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