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.
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?