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Cold comforts
Three Sisters at the ART, White Christmas at the Wang

Life passes agonizingly slowly, yet extrudes in violent bursts, for the Prozorovs of Krystian Lupa’s Three Sisters. The Polish visionary’s stateside debut, six years in the planning by American Repertory Theatre (where it continues through January 1), is scribbled with the director-designer’s signatures: a vast scenescape riddled with doors and windows and bordered by a red frame; soft drumming to guide the action (performed the first week by Lupa himself); and fraught silences you could drive a troika through.

But this is no turn-of-the-20th-century display of the ennui of the Russian gentry. Critic Richard Gilman, comparing Three Sisters with Waiting for Godot, asserts that "Chekhov wishes to reveal how time, as we experience it, is always and only the present, how the future is always illusion, the past always absence or loss." He suggests that time (along with irresolvable predicament) is the subject of Three Sisters, eroding its characters, who philosophize futilely of how life will become meaningful in 20 or 200 years, even as it dangles its carrot of hope. In Lupa’s minutely realized vision of the work, time hangs heavily as the play journeys at once forward toward existential despair and backward through sartorial history.

"Adapted" from Chekhov’s play and "based on" the blunt translation by Paul Schmidt, Lupa’s Three Sisters may prove troublesome to those who believe Chekhov’s genius should stand on its own. But what is grafted onto the Russian master’s humane paean to the girls who can’t get to Moscow are the markings of another genius, not mere modernist decoration. Lupa’s art is bathed in Jung, and some of what he brings out in the psychology of the Prozorovs is startling: the ever-hovering shades of the parents, who imbued their progeny with the education and the sensitivity that makes provincial vulgarity unbearable to them; the near-incestuous infantilization of brother Andrei by his sisters; the physical, nursery-bred intimacy of the overcharged sisters themselves.

But Lupa sees the play as floating from laden realism to deliberate fragmentation, with its agitated third act an effort by the characters, however unsuccessful, to break free of the motionlessness that mires them. The three-and-a-half-hour staging, therefore, moves from startling freshness, the birthday-party cordiality of the first act rife with dangerous underpinnings, to emotional wildness in the bedroom scene, where outside the city’s on fire and inside the Prozorovs are rolling and roiling around in their skivvies, to dull defeat in Chekhov’s fourth act, where the regiment of soldiers that has been the family’s only civilized company is pulling out of town.

Moreover, the production follows its carefully contrived, poetical trajectory at a slackening pace, the human connection of all but the sisters to one another so severed by the farewell exchanges that conversation takes the form of two people standing at some distance and addressing non sequitur protracted by awkward silence straight ahead at the audience. Everyone is so depressed, you begin to think Prozac might be named for the Prozorovs.

When Masha breaks this mood of flattened desperation by clinging so fast to departing lover Vershinin that she must be peeled off, the effect is heartbreaking — as is the sisters’ stubborn if zombie-like refusal to give in to their own tragedy. But getting to the moment when Olga looks bravely forward to learning why we suffer requires commitment. Dramaturg Gideon Lester speaks of "living through" a Lupa production, and that is indeed what the experience is like. It’s a visually, aurally, and intellectually rigorous exercise, not for the metabolically speedy or faint of heart.

There are, however, innumerable moments of piercing insight (some accompanied by piercing music: Polish composer Jacek Ostaszewski’s swarming strings, calmed by Lupa’s drum). In the beginning, Lupa paints the Prozorovs as still childish: giggling, tearful, teasing, squabbling little birds abandoned in a chilly nest to which Godot is not coming. The performances in subsidiary roles are concentrated, sometimes humorous, and able to swim the waters of abstraction. These include turns by Thomas Derrah as jaded newspaper junkie and failed physician Chebutykin and Will LeBow as Masha’s touchingly devoted pedant of a spouse, Kulygin. But those roles are less radically conceived than those of the Prozorovs, Vershinin, and the sisters’ trashy, usurping sister-in-law, Natasha. In them openness to Lupa’s ideas and long weeks of intense rehearsal prove mothers of invention.

Julienne Hanzelka Kim’s tiny yet formidable Natasha is less villainous than compelled yet eager to please. Tony winner Frank Wood’s Vershinin is no dashing dreamer but an earthbound, dutiful sad-sack. Kelly McAndrews presents an uncommonly ripe Olga who may be the key to Sean Dugan’s at once emasculated and sexually desperate Andrei. Sarah Grace Wilson drains the sugar from Irena, making her a tragic ghost of her hopeful if abrupt first-act self. And Molly Ward is an angular, sensuous Masha toeing the border of mania, whether flinging herself through the desperate song-and-dance that wakes the baby or uttering her low bullet burst of a laugh. Chekhov famously admonished against firing a gun that has not been previously brandished. Here every assertion of Masha’s unhappy mirth seems a precursor to the offstage shot that will puncture the one leaky life preserver bobbing between the Prozorovs and bottom.

White Christmas (at the Wang Theatre through December 31) also takes place in a hinterland full of old soldiers, but it’s about as Chekhovian as Busby Berkeley. The production at the Wang (which will alternate years between Boston and St. Paul) is as redolent of 42nd Street as it is of the beloved 1954 film on which it’s based. And the surefire combination of Irving Berlin (all the songs from the film and a few more) and the terrific tap dancing engineered by Randy Skinner make the show, which is directed by Tony winner Walter Bobbie, a winner. I’d go so far as to say that the stage version of White Christmas is less wooden if more lacquered than the movie.

There are a lot of small changes in the book by David Ives and Paul Blake, but the basic story is the same. Suave Stephen Bogardus and fleet-of-foot Michael Gruber star as workaholic Bob Wallace and playboy Phil Davis, successful 1950s vaudevilleans who discover the lovely Haynes sisters (statuesque Kerry O’Malley as Betty and pert hoofer Nadine Isenegger as Judy), then accompany them to their holiday gig at an inn in Vermont that turns out to be (a) run by the guys’ adored old World War II general and (b) dying the tourist death due to an absence of frozen precipitation. Wallace and Davis decide to bring in their retinue and put on a show in the barn. Romantic misunderstandings and big numbers ensue. But in the end, each song-and-dance man gets a Haynes, snow flutters down, and the audience gets to sing along to the tune Bing Crosby made the bestselling record in history.

White Christmas stays true to its ’50s values and fashions while offering some smartly turned — and tapped — out spectacle, notably on "The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing," which broadens into a ballroom fantasia, and the interpolated "Blue Skies" and "I Love a Piano." All four leads are good singers, with O’Malley and Bogardus making a ravishing mesh of "Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me" and "How Deep Is the Ocean." I’m not sure White Christmas, with all its tender hokum, needed a cute child, but the general’s granddaughter has been recast as a pipsqueak refugee from Annie (Katherine Doherty), and the audience eats her up, along with the rest of this slick but sweet confection with more holiday trimmings than a department-store window.

Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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