Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) crafted searingly emotional dramas in which, paradoxically, nothing much seems to happen.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (b. 1947) is renowned for viscerally expressive dialogue that captures the broken, clipped, sputtering rhythms of everyday spoken language.
So it seems only appropriate that, in the course of his career, Mamet has adapted to the modern stage four of Chekhov’s works, including Vint (1884/1985), The Cherry Orchard (1900/1985) and Uncle Vanya (1899/1994), the latter the basis for Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street.
This month, the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences is presenting Mamet’s adaptation of Chekhov’s late masterwork, The Three Sisters (1901/1991), considered by many critics to be the finest drama of the 20th century.
Shows will begin at 8 p.m. Nov. 14-15 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 16 in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in the Mallinckrodt Student Center. Additional performances will be at 8 p.m. Nov. 21-22 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 23.
The Three Sisters follows the lives of Olga (senior Robin Kacyn), Masha (senior Merrie Brackin) and Irina (junior Judith Lesser) Prozorov, daughters of a once-prominent but now deceased general. Along with their brother, Andrei (graduate student Ryan Howe), the sisters attempt to carve out meaningful existences in their small provincial garrison town, yet the tedious surroundings are relieved only by a procession of officers, lovers, suitors and husbands, and by the ever-present dream of returning to Moscow.
“The play is about how our lives happen to us while we’re wishing for other things,” said Annamaria Pileggi, senior artist in residence in the PAD, who directs the 17-member cast. “Chekhov focuses on the mundane-ness of life and the continual passage of time, yet ironically, each character undergoes an incredibly wrenching journey and by the end of the play has been utterly transformed.”
Pileggi described Mamet’s adaptation — based on a literal translation commissioned from Russian scholar Vlada Chernomordik — as a kind of conversation between the two playwrights.
“It’s fascinating, because you see them both at work,” Pileggi said. “Chekhov brings out the poet in Mamet and Mamet, even when he’s changing and editing the language, manages to extract the heart of Chekhov’s intentions.”
Pileggi pointed to a heartrending exchange between Irina and one of the officers, Baron Tuzenbach (sophomore Pushkar Sharma), who has asked for her hand in marriage:
Tuzenbach: And tomorrow: I’ll take you away. To be mine. To be with me. How can that be? That happiness? All my dreams. Can that be? Everything but the one thing: that you don’t love me.
Irina: How can I? I cannot “feel” it. … My soul is a jewelry box. And they’ve lost the key.
“That last image is all Mamet,” Pileggi said. “In the original, Irina says, ‘My heart is like a glorious grand piano, and the lid is closed and the key is thrown away.’
“Mamet’s phrase is more delicate and poetic, yet it still captures the essence of Chekhov’s tragicomic style.”
The production also stars graduate student Jason Cannon as Vershinin, the dashing battery commander who steals Masha’s heart; freshman Rob McLemore as Masha’s pedantic schoolteacher husband; and senior Tracey Kaplan as Natalya Ivanovna, Andrei’s domineering wife.
The set design, by senior Alexis Distler, creates a grand, vertical space that, as the play goes forward and the action moves from interior to exterior spaces, grows increasingly barren and skeletal.
Costumes are by senior Cynthia Bagby. Lighting is by sophomore Brett Meyers.
Tickets are $12 — $8 for students, senior citizens and University faculty and staff — and are available at the Edison Theatre Box Office, 935-6543, or through all MetroTix outlets.