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Still Life 

We see him all too seldom in St. Louis, but Chekhov rocks

Last weekend something remarkable occurred on the Washington University campus. An eager, sold-out, nearly all-student audience attended the opening of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, which is being staged by the Performing Arts Department with a nearly all-student cast. The audience laughed, it hung on every word, it remained involved for the entire three-hour duration. You don't see that very often.

In St. Louis you cannot see it very often. In New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Chekhov's plays are a theater constant. But here the Russian dramatist is staged so infrequently that when a production does appear, it becomes an event. Yet, as was the case last weekend, Chekhov's unique blend of comedy, tragedy and good old-fashioned melodrama makes for the most vibrant kind of introspective theater.

The Three Sisters, which debuted in 1901, is set in a Russian garrison town so remote, the nearest train station is 40 miles away. No wonder twenty-year-old Irina (Judith Lesser), the youngest of the three Prozoroff daughters, yearns to escape this exile and move to Moscow. Irina's older sister Masha (Merrie Brackin) is trapped in a hopeless marriage, while Olga (Robin Kacyn) is at that surreal point in life where their dead mother's face is beginning to fade from memory.

But the sisters aren't completely isolated. The Prozoroff home is the Grand Hotel of the town. Everyone of interest comes to dine, to philosophize, to debate, to seduce. The house and its occupants become a microcosm for an indolent Russia on the cusp of revolution. "The storm is coming in 25 years," one character predicts. (In fact, the Russian revolution arrived in sixteen years, though Chekhov did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled.) But beyond Russia, and the specific world that Chekhov dissected, the play is an ode to the valor of life itself. "No one has a true idea of anything," someone observes. Yet Chekhov's ideas are so suffused with gentleness and goodness, with acuity and truth, and especially with tolerance and a lack of piercing judgment, that his dialogue approaches the realm of theater poetry.

This version has been adapted by David Mamet, and not always to the play's benefit. As a conduit of emotions, the humanistic Chekhov towers over the egoistic Mamet. (Just try, for instance, to find the name of the translator anywhere in the playbill.) Whenever a line sounds too contemporary, glib or terse, the viewer can rest assured that Mamet's hand was at work. But Chekhov once encouraged translators "to cut and expand" his writings; if he didn't object to changes, why should we?

Chekhov's very name is now a part of theater vocabulary. Chekhovian refers to the space -- the very life -- that the actors are encouraged to fill between the playing of the lines. Yet as directed by Annamaria Pileggi, the emphasis here is on what's said -- on the lines themselves -- rather than on what remains unspoken. Much of the production is stationary; at times it resembles a photograph that talks.

In a cast of seventeen actors, several performances excel. Natalya, the timid outsider who marries into the family and then becomes the insidious personification of all things crass, is a veritable minefield of a role; Tracey Kaplan admirably travels a narrow corridor between excess and restraint. Matt Goldman portrays the contentious military officer Solyony with a blunt authority that drives the action forward. But the evening is anchored in the Vershinin of graduate student Jason Cannon. A visiting officer who cannot stop himself from ruminating on all subjects extant, Vershinin often runs the risk of wearing out his welcome. Not so here. Whenever he appears, the play attains an urgent hush. Cannon's weary soldier justifies and exploits the production's stillness; his mesmerizing performance is the essence of simplicity.

At intermission a student turned to his companion and fervently asked, "Do they get to Moscow?" After a truly Chekhovian pause, his friend slowly replied, "I'm not sure." The play still grips; the drama still holds. The Three Sisters remains one of the essentials of world theater.

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