In Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” Olga, Masha and Irina, richly cultivated siblings languishing in a provincial military town a year after the death of their general father, long for their old life in Moscow. “To Moscow,” they perennially cry, as though dreaming an impossible dream.
Why doesn’t someone get a carriage and drop them off at the train station? This question leads to the artistic heart of Chekhov, a writer who was drawn to the gap between the idealized futures we concoct for ourselves and the much shabbier reality that is our lives.
Brazilian director, writer and filmmaker Christiane Jatahy explores this discrepancy to ingenious effect in “ What If They Went to Moscow?” The production, which runs through Sunday at REDCAT, is part of a trilogy of multimedia investigations of classics that includes “Julia” (inspired by August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”) and “The Walking Forest” (loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”).
The audience for “What If They Went to Moscow?” is divided into two groups: one that witnesses the actors perform this 90-minute deconstruction of Chekhov’s play in the theater, another that experiences a carefully orchestrated live feed of the performance on screen.
The groups switch places after a lengthy interval that turns this offering into a four-hour event. The time not wasted in the logistical break is well spent. Moving with bubbling vigor, the production has the ingredient that even the most audaciously postmodern “Three Sisters” requires: a trio of actresses who can lure you into the labyrinths of their inner selves. (The production uses supertitles when the cast members, who are fairly adept in English, speak in Portuguese.)
Isabel Teixeira plays Olga, the eldest daughter who, not having a husband or children of her own, assumes the role of the sisters’ late mother. Julia Bernat is Irina, the youngest and most plaintively restless, whose 20th birthday has occasioned the festive gathering that turns tumultuously soul-searching. And Stella Rabello portrays unhappily married Maria, a romantic thundercloud of a woman, neurotic yet savagely loving.
I first experienced the piece in the theater, where the atmosphere (though meticulously organized) lends an impression of improvisational looseness. The activity onstage is overlapping, dispersing our attention. Orange juice is poured; bottles of vodka, champagne and red wine are opened. Irina strums a moody number on an electric guitar. Cake is cut. Olga, ever catering to her guests onstage and in the audience, serves homemade snacks. Maria, brooding in a corner, threatens to leave early. Dancing breaks out. Theatergoers are invited to join the party.
Time passes as though nothing consequential is happening, but in Chekhov this is precisely when existence asserts itself. We may recount our lives as though they are a series of narrative climaxes, but it’s in the interstices that we mostly live. Waiting … for the future to arrive, for promises to be realized (or definitively dashed), for transformation to miraculously materialize.
While largely confining the action to the first act of Chekhov’s drama, Jatahy plays catch-up in the final movement of her free-form riff. The men in the sisters’ lives, a reliable source of distress, are portrayed with quiet finesse by company members who move around video equipment and help keep the show technically and musically on track. The plot, however, is less important than the internal processing of the women, whose affectionate bonds with one another allow them to withstand the disappointments that rain down on them.
The theater performance regularly underscores the immediacy of what’s occurring. The date and time at the start and the end of the piece are announced. There’s mention of contemporary Brazilian politics (and the rise of fascism on the world stage). Characters wonder aloud about the present-tense quality of the past. The elusive nature of change — how do we stop talking about it and finally initiate it? — is taken up as a collective quandary.
None of the temporal philosophizing, however, has the power of the physical presence of the actors, their soulful earthiness, the shadowy light of their inhabited bodies. It is the felt life that Chekhov brings us, the living theatrical record of emotion that says these characters are once again here among us, eating, wishing, loving, crying, enduring.
The cinematic version of the piece, presented in REDCAT’s gallery space, focuses the storytelling by tuning out activity, making us privy to conversations not visible or audible in the theater and homing in through closeups on the tears and furrowed brows of the actors. Details are filled in even as larger connections (among the entire cast and between the company and the spectators) are sacrificed for specificity.
These are complementary rather than competitive experiences. What’s astonishing is the lack of redundancy in the nearly exact halves, a credit to the fresh vitality of the acting and the rich discipline of Jatahy’s scripted coordination.
Richard Gilman, perhaps the most incisive American critic of Chekhov, argues in “Chekhov: An Opening Into Eternity” that just as Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is about how the tramps fill up their time while waiting for the title character who never arrives, “Three Sisters” is about “how the sisters live while not getting to Moscow.” “Why they don’t get to Moscow is, then, a question only to those for whom everything in art, as in life, is utility, satisfaction, recompense, and everything not seized and exploited, all that doesn’t work to our ostensible advantage, is defeat.”
The play, Gilman writes, “proposes other values,” chief among these an “acceptance of mystery” in this “drama of inconclusiveness.” Jatahy recognizes this wisdom while sharing the desperate longing of Chekhov’s characters to make a better world than the one that currently exists. The production maintains the metaphysical long view while administering the gentle reproach that Russian writer Maxim Gorky heard in Chekhov’s compassionate art: “You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Christiane Jatahy: ‘What If They Went to Moscow?’
Where: REDCAT, 631 W 2nd St., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday
Tickets: $20- $30
Information: (213) 237-2800, REDCAT.org
Running time: 4 hours
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