- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
Anton Chekhov (d. 1904) occupies an odd historical space. During his lifetime he was on theater’s cutting edge with his idea of subtext, a convention that reflects the aspect of human interaction where what is happening emotionally is not always explicit. But for all that modernism, Chekhovian dialogue sounds more archaic than stylized to our ears. The Chekhovian challenge for actors and directors, then, is to play that artificiality with the subtextual reality, layering all that humanity (nothing artificial about Chekhov there) atop his wonky words.
Elysium Conservatory Theatre’s Three Sisters is a triumph of exactly that. Director Aaron Ganz and his cast boldly explore social interaction in a way that few theater companies ever do, incorporating so much naturalistic space and silence into the dialogue that the only way you could feel more like a fly on the wall is if you sprouted little wings.
We meet Olga (Charlotte Spangler), Masha (Monica Ross) and Irina (Kate Slinger) exactly one year after their father’s death. They live together on their family estate with their brother Andrei (Justin Powell) in the provincial town they’ve called home for the past 11 years. But they yearn to return to Moscow, which for them symbolizes a carefree world of love, devoid of loss and devoid of the confusion on the purpose (or purposelessness) of suffering. They believe that work can redeem them, can redeem all of humanity. If they just do the work, the right work, they can locate themselves in history and make sense of it all.
If you’ve read any of the 19th-century Russian classics, you know that the sisters are never going to find what they’re looking for. A powerful philosophical enlightenment was happening in that time and place. Writers like Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Lermontov were exploring the bleakness of the human condition in a brand new way. Chekhov, a generation younger, picked up the torch.
If you’re looking for a lot of plot, the Three Sisters ain’t your gals. The dominant action — almost the only action — in a Chekhov play is people sitting around and talking. And, because Chekhov never met a chance to hammer home his motifs that he didn’t like, they repeat themselves plenty:
…work, Moscow, what does it all mean, someday we’ll understand what it means, we must work, we’ve gotta get back to Moscow, in the future it will all make sense, let’s work because it will make the future better and the present more comprehensible, we’re never going to get to Moscow, I’m working but it still doesn’t make sense, but maybe in the future….
This might be a bit of a bore if not for the humanity of the interactions both between the characters and between each character and her existential predicament as they struggle amidst life’s ponderousness. This is the magic of Elysium Conservatory Theatre’s production. It’s not so much that the actors get their mouths completely around Chekhov’s wonkiness (the cast gets high marks across the board), but how they live in the spaces around them. It may be difficult to fully explain why moments of the play, such as Irina sitting curled up on a chair in the late-night aftermath of a party — idly eating a cookie, languorously removing her shoes, and silently regarding other characters as they straggle on and off stage — is so captivating; the short answer is all about seeing these characters live their lives as we humans actually live our lives.
That realism carries over into the dialogue. Scenes always play in real time, with the actors allowing for all the natural space that is organic to real-life conversation — the meaningful looks, the awkward pauses, the averting of the eyes, the processing, the sitting in silence together, the being alone in a crowded room or even an embrace.
If the delivery is enough to make you feel like a fly on the wall, the staging ramps up the audience immersion so that it’s like experiencing Three Sisters via a virtual reality headset. Elysium’s Theatre would be eyed with murderous envy by almost any troupe this side of Broadway, comprising several unique rooms, each bigger than most any black box theater. Elysium Conservatory Theatre fully exploits the blessing of all that space with a vigorous movement element that is one of their signatures (although at heart this is a traditionalist take on Chekhov, with the movement set pieces confined to tasteful accents), but Three Sisters is staged so that, no matter where you sit, scenes will sometimes play within a meter or two of you. There is no stage confining the actors’ ambit. We’re with them in the room, in the garden, sometimes literally sitting right next to them on the couch. It might play as a gimmick in the wrong hands; here, it’s most always just like life.
Because of the pacing and the occasional movement elements, Elysium Conservatory Theatre’s Three Sisters runs more than four hours, so they have chosen to break the play into two parts, which (depending on when you to see it) are played either on a single Saturday (with a few hours in between) or on consecutive nights. The logic of the separation is successful vis-à-vis plot arc and character development, but Elysium Conservatory Theatre further supports it by staging Part One in the upstairs foyer space, while Part Two plays out in a pair of the interior spaces (the audience migrates from one to the next).
Because the immersive realism is the true star of the show, this production feels like an ensemble piece, even though it obviously centers on the sisters, all of whom are well cast. If there’s a standout in Part One, it’s Monica Ross as Masha. Despite seeming the most reticent of the sisters as the play opens, her explosiveness (more angst than meanness) is our first window into the family’s discontent. Just about the only alteration Ganz has made to the (English translation of the) dialogue is including curses appropriate for our coarsened 21st-century ears.
“Oh, but her fucking clothes,” Masha exclaims about Natasha a quarter of the way through Part One, and it helps amp up our sense of reality. Although Masha’s got the mouth of a sailor, Ross never plays it gratuitously.
The standout of Part Two is Kate Slinger. Although Andrei and Natasha are other characters that end up changed (Natasha in particular comes into her own—not in a good way), young Irina runs the most tortuous path and arrives at its end the most damaged. While Ross and Corkery are notable for their anger and bitterness, Slinger’s heavy lifting is internal, with her pain and confusion emerging more from her face than her words. Because it’s often impossible to keep all of the characters in view at one time — that’s how fully Elysium Conservatory Theatre exploits these big spaces — sometimes you may turn your head to find that Slinger’s been playing that anguish while no-one may have been looking. In such a real moment, your suspension of disbelief has to keep your empathy for Slinger in check; otherwise, you’ll get distracted from the drama. That’s acting.
If there’s a weakness to Elysium Conservatory Theatre’s production, it may be a slight overindulgence in all that space. Maybe on occasion the characters are standing unnaturally far apart as they talk. Maybe sometimes they speak a little too loudly for the situation. On the whole, though, their instincts — tightly honed in the rehearsal process — are fantastic. I’m not a Chekhov fan, but I was all in for all four hours. It’s a privilege to experience a show this immersive, this quietly bold. They don’t come along often.
Time: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, and 12:30 p.m. Dec. 2, through Dec. 16
Cost: $10 to $15
Details: (424) 535-7333, FearlessArtists.org
Venue: Elysium Conservatory Theatre, 2729 S. Palos Verdes St., San Pedro