Troika Travesty: Berkeley Rep’s “Three Sisters”

Irina (Heather Wood) tries to wash off the stink while Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) realizes it ain't comin' off. (Photo courtesy of mellopix.com)

Over in Berkeley, a conspiracy is happening eight times a week.  Director Les Waters and adaptor/playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)) have plotted to produce a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters bereft of beauty, delicacy, and artistry, substituting a crass, clanging mess in place of one of the great masterpieces of world theater.  I have seen many bad or misguided productions of Chekhov, but I’ve never seen anything to rival this abomination.  It’s like watching a production of Streetcar adapted and directed by Stanley Kowalski. Waters and Ruhl apparently believe that if Chekhov were alive today, he’d be a staff writer for “Two and Half Men.”  (Chekhov was bi-winning, man.)

Why does Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) announce he’s going to play the piano and then crash his hands down discordantly on the keyboard and then yuk it up like it’s not something an ill-behaved child does?  Why does Masha (Natalia Payne) keep saying “Goddammit”?  Why is Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) so boring and dowdy?  Why is Natasha (Emily Kitchens) played as a twitchy, goggle-eyed circus freak, unbecomingly got up in pink gingham? Why, when the men dance and sing, are they so loud and clumsy, knocking over drinking glasses?  No wonder Natasha wants them the hell out of the house.  Why do almost none of the actors appear to know anything about naturalistic acting, declaiming in monotones, with odd pauses?  Is this supposed to be some sort of Commedia Dell’Arte version of Three Sisters, God help us all?  Do Waters and Ruhl actually believe Chekhov wrote this play about a bunch of buffoons?

It seems that the creative (term used extremely loosely) team feels deeply that portraying a character as unhappy on stage will drive the audience away, or will be undramatic, or something, so all the good folks in Three Sisters are rendered as bat-shit crazy instead.  (‘Cause it’s funny, man!  And Chekhov wrote comedies, man!  Just ask him!) I sat through the first two acts with my mouth open, jaw dropped as far as it could go, stupefied.  I did not sit through the last two acts, my urge to make the pain stop overcoming my curiosity as to how people who think that the Prozorov family was a precursor to Al and Peg Bundy would handle the tragedies of the third and fourth acts.

Is there anything good about this production?  Annie Smart’s set is both rustic and elegant, using blonde wood and blue panels.  Alex Moggridge attempts to give a performance as Andrei, the put-upon brother to the three sisters.  But as Ruhl has the good doctor Chebutykin (James Carpenter) say: “Ah, who gives a shit?”  (And yes, that is actually a line that the celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl thinks is appropriate for a production of Chekhov.  She’s a genius and she’s got the grant to prove it!)

In the program notes, Ruhl writes, “I am sorry, Anton, for any havoc I have wreaked….” Some things are unforgiveable.

Hey, it don't look so bad in this pic! And yet it is. (From left to right: Natalia Payne, Heather Wood, and Wendy Rich Stetson. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com.)

Three Sisters plays through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.  To purchase tickets, call 510-647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org. But why, WHY, would you ever do such a thing?

Catching Up: Responses to Recent Productions

Although I’ve seen several productions over the last month and a half, there hasn’t been anything especially compelling to write about, with one exception.  Having seen several “serious” productions in San Francisco as well as two more commercial ventures in Walnut Creek, I can tell you the commercial stuff won hands down.  Center Rep’s production of the spectacularly superficial sex farce Boeing Boeing, featured a splendid mid-century “modern” set design by Erik Flatmo, and two great performances, the comically unhinged Alex Moggridge (whose Romeo of ten years ago or so remains the best I’ve seen) as the rube among sophisticates, and the statuesque Jennifer Erdmann as a Lufthansa stewardess, belting a line like “I can’t find my loofah” as if announcing the annexation of Poland.  Liam Vincent as the swinging bachelor whose juggling of love affairs with three stewardesses predictably leads to disaster, and Jessica Lynn Carroll and Kelsey Venter as the other two stews, also did fine work.

Alex Moggridge, Jennifer Erdmann, and Jessica Lynn Carroll flying the friendly skies in Center Rep's "Boeing Boeing."

The show I would have liked to write about at greater length, but saw too late in its run, was Diablo Theatre Company’s mounting of The Drowsy Chaperone.  I admired the Broadway production, which was clever and very slickly produced, but I loved Diablo’s production—less slick, but funnier and somehow more touching.  I say “somehow” but it’s pretty clear what made it so: Michael Patrick Gaffney’s performance as Man in Chair, the role originated by the show’s co-author Bob Martin.

Michael Patrick Gaffney shares his love in Diablo's "The Drowsy Chaperone."

We’re only in March, but I’m tempted to say Gaffney’s is the performance of the year.  He brought a deeper pathos and substance than Martin did on Broadway to his portrayal of a man lonely and alone, but still quick with a quip and possessed of a mordant wit.  Gaffney’s Man in Chair was a man withdrawn from life after a long history of disappointments, but whose passion could still be stirred by the cast album of a silly 1920s musical that he plays for the audience, providing commentary along the way.  Gossiping about the cast and back-story of the Jazz Age relic, his eyes shone and his face lit up, and when moved to dance and sing along with the music, Gaffney made his actions things of beauty.  His Man in Chair knows the show is silly escapism, but given the current state of his existence, that’s what he wants most.

Gaffney’s depth and commitment made the show’s comedy richer and funnier.  There were problems with the production (it seemed underlit, and at the performance I saw, there were late lighting cues and some sub-par spotlight work—it also didn’t help that the Thursday night audience seemed unaware they were allowed to laugh), but when the amazing Sharon Rietkirk sings “Show Off,” the terrific number where the show within the show’s leading lady announces she’s abandoning her successful stage career to get married  (“I don’t wanna wear this no more./ Play the saucy Swiss Miss no more./ Blow my signature kiss no more./ I don’t wanna show off”) and the rest of the cast is busy show-casing her as she spins plates, undergoes miraculous quick changes, performs magic tricks, and belies the song’s lyrics in every conceivable way, it’s expertly staged bliss.  (Daren A.C. Corollo directed and Sheri Stockdale did the choreography.)  Other highlights: Leanne Borghesi’s belting out the inspirational ode to being tipsy, “As We Stumble Along,” Dan LeGate’s ridiculous accent as the rakish Adolpho (Man in Chair describes the actor portraying Adolpho as “the man of a 1,000 accents, all of them offensive”), and the very funny Samantha Bruce as Kitty, the starlet hoping to marry her way to stardom.

"The Drowsy Chaperone" ensemble takes off.

Over in the county of San Fran, my theatergoing has been a little drearier.  I was looking forward to the New Conservatory Theatre Center’s production of Paul Rudnick’s Regrets Only. Rudnick, author of Jeffrey, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and the movie Addams Family Values, can be hilarious, but Regrets Only is a social problem play (about gay marriage) told in an ostensibly high-comic style.  Rudnick’s characters don’t quip so much as perform extended routines for the benefit of some unseen audience.  (Certainly not for our benefit.)  On top of this the NCTC cast had no facility for the style, shouting their lines and pushing the jokes, and the set design, meant to replicate a swanky Manhattan apartment, was shabby looking and tasteless.  Perhaps the second act was better.  I wouldn’t know since I got the hell out of there at intermission.

The regrettable "Regrets Only" at NCTC.

A more valiant effort was to be found at the San Francisco Playhouse’s presentation of British playwright Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan.  Admirably acted (especially by Susi Damilano, Joy Carlin, Michael Keys Hall, Richard Frederick, and Daniel Redmond), competently staged by director Amy Glazer, and featuring a wonderful, ghostly set design by Bill English based on the artist Rachel Whiteread’s large-scale plaster works, Harper Regan had some genuinely affecting moments, but Stephens is another one of those British playwrights (like Patrick Marber) who’s too heavily influenced by Pinter and Mamet.  Despite a somewhat happy (and unsatisfactorily pat) ending, the script is too sour, too bitter to be engrossing.

Next up: a review of Cutting Ball’s Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and two other short plays by the celebrated (though not by me) Will Eno.

Susi Damilano and Daniel Redmond in SF Playhouse's "Harper Regan."

Regrets Only plays through April 3 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market Street), San Francisco.  For more information call (415) 861-8972 or go to http://www.nctcsf.org.