Imagine Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead performed by the same cast on two adjacent stages simultaneously, and you’ll have an idea of the relationship between Jackson Gay’s sturdy new production of Three Sisters and No Sisters, Aaron Posner’s new… well, what to call it? That is the question.
Though derived from Chekhov’s 116-year-old chronicle of darkness on the edge of town, No Sisters isn’t quite a chopped-and-screwed update in the vein of Stupid Fucking Bird or Life Sucks—Posner’s plain-talk profanations of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, respectively. It’s more like an appendix to the original. Or an overlay, more precisely. Or an internal commentary track, comprised of monologues and conversations among Three Sisters’ secondary players. (Like the title says, the sisters ain’t here.) Rare is the scene with more than two characters, and there’s a practical reason for this: In Studio Theatre’s audacious dual staging, No Sisters is synchronized to the performance of Three Sisters happening in front of a different audience downstairs, and its eight-person cast is also part of the company of 15 performing in that concurrent Three Sisters.
Daniel Conway’s set—a “weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room,” per the program, stocked with VHS cassettes and board games, as well as portraits of Chekhov, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and, oh yeah, that trio of Prózorov sisters, too—includes seven black-and-white monitors so the actors can watch a live feed of the other show, allowing them to run downstairs just in time for their entrances. A buzzer and a flashing red light warn them if they’re late.
What makes this Brechtian juggling act possible is that the characters in Three don’t know they’re in a play, while the ones in No, er, realize that they’re in two. This high gimmickry sometimes borders on gimcrackery. Certainly it mutes the emotional rewards of Chekhov’s play without doing much to relieve its exhaustion and torpor. And making the two performances dovetail requires some vamping. On the night I saw No Sisters, Todd Scofield (understated and fine as a soppy, cuckolded schoolteacher who’s always showing off his Latin) got through one of his monologues a few minutes before he was needed downstairs, so he took questions from the audience.
This sort of crowd solicitation felt risky and revelatory when Posner deployed it in Stupid Fucking Bird four years ago. Repetition has blunted its edge a little. That’s ironic, because the objective of his grand reclamation project—of Chekhov’s major tragedies, only The Cherry Orchard remains for Posner to chop down—was to make these plays feel as revolutionary as they did at the start of the 20th century. Chekhov’s elevation of subtext and de-emphasis of plot was an experimental approach that succeeded well enough to become a conventional one.
That’s at least part of why every production of Three Sisters I’ve ever seen, no matter how sensitively performed, is at least a little dull. The torpor is baked in; it’s tough to prevent a play about crushing boredom and anticlimax from succumbing to it. I’ve sometimes joked that the play should be called Three Hours … If You’re Lucky, and while Chekhov could hardly have imagined the instant-gratification amusements with which his work now competes, I’m pretty sure he meant for his tragedies to be stifling and unfulfilling so that audiences might identify with his stifled and unfulfilled characters. “Chekhov’s gun” refers to the playwright’s notion that a story should contain nothing inessential, but could also refer to the way we spend these plays waiting a little impatiently for someone on stage to shoot themselves or get shot.
In case you’ve forgotten, the sisters are Ólga (Bridget Flanery), unhappily single and unpursued; Másha (Caroline Hewitt), unhappily married and in love with an also-married Army colonel (Greg Stuhr); and guileless 20-year-old Irína (Emile Krause), unhappily courted by every man in town. Her milkshake brings all the boychiks to the shtetl, but she wishes that it would not. “I should’ve killed myself a long time ago,” she announces upon reaching the wizened age of 24.
Chekhov insisted he was writing a comedy, didn’t you know?
Both shows benefit enormously from the presence of Kimberly Gilbert as Natásha, sister-in-law to the Prózorov girls, who grows vindictive and cruel over the course of Three Sisters’ four years. (Her French gets better while her temper gets worse.) Gilbert is the kind of firebrand performer who can’t be suppressed no matter how corseted she is. Costume designer Jessica Ford buckles her into a crimson velvet gown for the latter half of both shows. No wonder “Nat” stomps around in No Sisters dumping coins in the curse-jar and slugging José Cuervo from the bottle while Ryan Rilette (as Andreí, her beaten-down husband in both shows) sips from a Star Trek mug. (Gilbert, Rilette, and Nancy Robinette, who plays the elderly servant Nat wants to fire, were all in Round House’s 2015 Uncle Vanya, which used a translation by Annie Baker. Gilbert is the only actor to appear in all three of Posner’s Chekhov updates.)
The actors less familiar to D.C. crowds are strong, too. Flanery, Hewitt, and Krause are good as the sisters, whose ennui is matched by that of the soldiers who sit around in uniform with no enemies to fight. The trio in love with Irína who show up in No Sisters are Solyony (Biko Eisen-Martin), Tuzenbach (Ro Boddie), and Fedotik (William Vaughan). Eisen-Martin makes the most of his opportunity to mine the inner life of his lovesick captain, who resents his friend Tuzenbach because the latter’s attempts to woo Irína are more thoughtful than his own. (Like every other actor I’ve seen cast as Tuzenbach, who the text repeatedly tells is a notably fugly fellow, Boddie is quite handsome.) Solyony chastises us, too, for coming to theater for “our little rush of otherness,” a comment that intersects neatly with the climactic remark from Olga’s line, in Three Sisters’ final minute that “our suffering will turn to joy for people who come after us.”
We also turn to drama for a rush of violence, so Posner puts the offstage duel that sets up Three Sisters’ climax right in front of his upstairs play. If you mention a gun in the text, we had better see it go off after a century, give or take.
At Studio Theatre to April 23.1501 14th St. NW. $20 – $75. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.