The Shaw Festival’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which opened last week for a four-month run on the Festival stage, is a new made-in-Canada version by Susan Coyne. But, like seeing the Mona Lisa with a nose ring, it begs the perennial question: is new always better?
When hearing a performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the listener is at the mercy of the conductor for the subjective details of tempo, balance and dynamics, but the performers—whether in Buffalo or Leningrad—all start from the same source: the composer’s ideas, as represented by the thousands of notes that are contained for all to see in the music’s score and parts.
Necessarily, every time the work is brought to life, it’s unique. Our enthusiasm for the result is frequently based upon comparisons of the same composition to those in memory. If the solo horn “bloops” it mars the whole like a blemish, but only slightly alters the creator’s intent.
Art carved out of a less universal language is more problematic. Between the original and the audience lie the translators. They are the keepers of the truth. Audiences, actors and directors—unless sophisticated linguists—rely on the translation for the many subtleties, tones and textures that are distinct or colloquial to the author’s tongue.
In Coyne’s further adaptation of a translation by Yana Meerzon and Dimitri Priven of Chekhov’s 1901 masterwork, the play is “brought home” using tired clichés (“and blah, blah, blah;” “Heck of a fire, eh?” even a “whatever” jarred the ears, being so at odds with the Russian setting) and uninspired replacements (“your honour” rather than sir, “mummers” are awaited rather than the carnival party). Wassup with that?
If Shaw’s artistic trust believes that the Canadianization of the world’s great art is required to fill the seats or keep Corporate Canada chuckling, perhaps Red Green should be added to the troupe. This unfortunate trend must be nipped in the bud or, the next thing you know, Stratford’s Gilbert and Sullivan productions will start to feature re-writes of the patter songs with cheap-laugh references to the politicians of our day!
Beyond the words, Jackie Maxwell’s direction got mired down with a reliance on the visual to carry the most thoughtful and longest play of Chekhov’s oeuvre. Scene after scene were tableau driven leaving her cast more like the trees they were staring at, patiently waiting for camera three’s red light to glow and begin the next speech. Pointillism is a valid technique but it demands more background glue than Sue LePage’s functional but colourless set or Kevin Lamotte’s discreet, cool lighting plan could muster.
The delivery of the script’s abundance of sound and music references was another source of frustration. Andrei’s (Ben Carlson, whose transition from suitor to underling lacked conviction) off-stage violin seemed miles, not just a wall away from the drawing room. The taped hiss of the Baron’s (Jeff Meadows, who could never look homely) piano was entirely at odds with Fedotik’s (Jeff Madden) real-time acoustic guitar. Even the knocks from Dr. Chebutykin’s (David Schurmann) apartment sounded exactly the same no matter where they were heard in the house. Finally, having completely missed the shot that felled the ready-for-work and Irina’s (Caroline Cave) hand Baron, it came as no surprise that the regimental band appeared to be half-way to Poland when their departure from the forest and the sisters’ lives wound down the final moments.
It fell to the smaller roles to give life and vivid characterization to this uneven production. The elderly servants (Anfisa, Jennifer Phipps; Ferapont, Richard Farrell) took the abuse of their masters with style, dignity and compelling stoicism. The twins of madness Rohde (played with baby-roasting aplomb by Andrew Bunker) and Masha (Tara Rosling) provided moments of intensity (especially Masha’s breakdown) that were more sudden than expected.
The battle for household supremacy was another intrigue that smouldered rather than burst into flame. Fiona Byrne’s Natasha—moving from mocked newcomer to Lady of the Manor (and, naturally, as unfaithful as that lofty station requires)—was played with conniving ease but her repentance after Nanny-bashing was more the flip of a switch, lacking
even a nickel’s worth of remorse.
Eldest-sister Olga (Kelli Fox) seemed content in her role as matron and lead denialist (“I can’t hear you,” as her married sibling Masha confesses her love for another) and coldly asexual. None of the sisters raised even an eyebrow at the unexplored subtext that the wily Chebutykin might have sired one of them.
As Chebutykin came to grips with his own failings and fell off the wagon into heady despair, his wrenching soliloquy notched the level up significantly only to be dashed by being directed to attempt drowning himself in a wash basin, which drew a laugh but lost the moment.
Tinkering with greatness requires the same level of creativity as the originator. Anything less—inevitably—will fall short of the mark. JWR