I once wrote a play in which a sadistic prison guard forced inmates to strip off most of their clothes and perform scenes from Anton Chekhov plays in their underwear. Sure, it was meant it to be absurd and funny (and I'm always looking for cheap opportunities to get actors into their skivvies), but being naked in jail also served as an apt representation of Chekhov's major recurring themes. His depressed Russians are constantly putting their raw emotions on display—most of his characters are very vocally bored, tired, and deeply dissatisfied with life—but they are all trapped, plagued by the inability to do anything about any of it.
After seeing the beautifully designed and directed inaugural production of Chalk Repertory Theatre's Three Sisters, I have discovered that my prison metaphor gets trumped by the fact that this show is performed on the grounds of a cemetery. If Chekhov's work is indeed as much about the death of Russia as it is about the death of the human spirit, then what better place to see Three Sisters than the recently opened-to-the-public Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, "the resting place of Hollywood's immortals" (like Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks)?
What's most interesting about Chekhov is that, although he works within the genre of the family melodrama, he uses those conventions as a device to question the very meaning of existence. Chekhov's characters are small against the backdrop of the universe—Olga is already a spinster at 28, Masha is lovesick for a man other than her husband, and Irina loves no one and nothing except the idea of moving to Moscow—but his themes and concerns are way bigger than most playwrights'.
This new production of Susan Coyne's adaptation (Coyne worked on the beloved Canadian series Slings & Arrows) features a uniformly excellent cast, striking because the central family is played by Asian-American actors (Jennifer Chang, Feodor Chin, Aileen Cho, and Joy Omanski—holla!). I never really thought about it before, but doesn't casting Asians in Chekhov plays make much more sense than casting Anglo-Americans? I mean, look on a map—I bet Asians wake up in the morning and say, "I can see Russia from my house."
Since the play runs three hours, you may feel compelled to hand the characters some antidepressants by the time the third act rolls around (I mean, I've always suspected that pharmaceuticals would help Chekhov's characters cope and cut his running times by half), but being hopped up on caffeine will help.
Two final notes: 1.) I don't know who the hell Corey Brill is, but his quirky (but ultimately heartbreaking) portrayal of Kulygin is a miracle of comic timing; and 2.) the terrific Adam J. Smith plays the supposedly unattractive, nay, ugly, Tuzenbach—but he is actually so damn cute! In a perfect world, when Tuzenbach walks onto stage, I want to be physically repulsed and throw up on the lady in front of me. As is, if Irina doesn't fall in love with that hottie, then there's no hope for her. But then again, there's no hope for anyone, anywhere, at anytime in Chekhov plays. Thank goodness his tragedies are also comedies.
[Three Sisters is running through February 22, 2009, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. For more information and tickets, visit Chalk Repertory Theatre. (Attention, cheap bastards: Pay What You Can Night is February 8, 2009; also, keep checking for half-price tickets through LA Stage Alliance.)]