Friday, February 22, 2013

Off and Running

Vershinin and Masha share a private moment.
We're right in the middle of the run. Tonight marks the first performance after several dark nights. I can say, in all honesty, the cast deserved a break and (based on last night's energetic pick-up rehearsal) they are eager to return to the stage and will bring to closing weekend a rediscovered love of this intricately written depiction of family life.

I enjoyed watching the opening weekend of performances . . . it felt good to finally sit back and view the show as an audience member rather than as a director. It's difficult to completely remove myself from that role, of course, but it does help that I'm no longer scribbling notes in the dark, looking for things to "fix." Handing the show off completely to a crackerjack stage manager, run-crew, and dedicated group of actors is everything I could ask for. It's the golden, yet bittersweet, moment directors work for. There's that point where I have to step back completely and say, "They don't need me anymore." (Fly little birds, fly! - I often joke to myself.) Bittersweet - always.

Tuzenbach expresses his undying devotion to Irina.
I believe that any play worth watching is a culmination of little moments between characters, the discoveries that they make through dialogue and interaction. That seems to be ever amplified within the context of a Chekhov play. There are no heroes or villains in this world. There isn't even a definable protagonist. Instead, we are dropped in to glimpse upon a family for a few minutes over a period of several years. The audience only gets those few precious isolated moments to understand the Prozorovs and their friends.

While Chekhov suggests how the story develops between the scenes we see, we never actually do know how Masha and Kulygin interact when they are alone together, what Tuzenbach is like when he is not attempting to woo Irina, or even what Vershinin's unhappy wife is truly like. In true realism fashion, we are presented with an impression and then given the burden of responsibility to accept that human beings and relationships are far more complicated that anything we can see in two hours upon a stage. This is part of the brilliance of Three Sisters. We witness the changes in the characters and are left to assume how they got there. It's like attempting to piece together the full account of someone's life based solely upon a few random Facebook posts.

"If only we knew. If only we knew."
There are moments in this play where the audience will love each character and moments where they will hate them. These people are selfish, petty, and sometimes cruel. And yet they possess an immense capacity for love, humor, and hope. They're just like us. Are there lessons to be learned from the Prozorovs? I don't know if I would say that, but I do believe that there is something in this play that will resonate with everyone whether it is in Anfisa's fear of being left alone, Andrei's sense of failure, Masha's self-imposed unhappiness, Vershinin's narcissism, or any one of the many, many moments that put together this poignant picture of life.

One of my favorite acting teachers once said, "We go to the theatre to watch people go on journeys that we are too afraid to go on ourselves." I have certainly enjoyed this journey as I have gotten to know the Prozorovs for nearly a year now. I hope that in this second weekend of performances their journey will resonate with the audiences who have yet to see it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Three Sisters Rehearsal Journal

Our beautiful poster design by Nathan Langner.
Choosing Happiness
As I have gotten to know these characters more intimately over the past few weeks, I have come to love and resent them. They are just so maddeningly human. Each person becomes his or her own worst enemy as a desire for happiness, security, and passion leads them to make selfish, and sometimes, self-destructive choices.

I was in the process of writing out the press release for the show when it occurred to me that Three Sisters is a perfect show for college students - not just to act in, but to see. It's essentially a show about growing up and being in the position to make decisions of consequence. Will they choose to pursue an unattainable fantasy? Will they choose to devote themselves to others? Will they choose to live happily within the confines of reality? Will they choose to challenge themselves or will they choose to settle? The play begins a year after the Prozorov patriarch, a respected army general, passed away. For the first time Andrei, Olga, Masha, and Irina are left with complete freedom to define their own future paths without the influence of a parent. As educated and privileged young adults, all in their 20s or early 30s, they have all the advantages in the world, yet as usually happens in Chekhov's world, they won't live up to their potential because they will chase after the impossible.

"The present is so awful, but when I think of the future I feel good again."
Andrei, as the only son in the family, was likely doted on by his mother while she was alive. Andrei could do no wrong. The sisters adore him and have high expectations that he will become a professor in Moscow. They idealize their father and now Andrei faces the pressure of carrying on the Prozorov mantle. Andrei shows nothing but passion and promise. From the opening scene of the play, however, there is a distinct contrast between how the sisters talk about him, and how he sees himself.

Irina thinks very highly of her older brother, listing off his accomplishment to a less-than-impressed Vershinin. But, Andrei's first appearance on stage reveals a subtle self doubt. He makes excuses for having gained weight in the last year and he dismisses his extensive education as something his father had "overloaded" them with. By the end of the scene, Andrei proposes to his girlfriend, Natasha, who the sisters view as beneath him. Natasha enters as sweet, naive, and very unsure of herself. By the second scene, eighteen months later, Natasha has transformed into a terrifyingly domineering presence. As Natasha's power grows, Andrei weakens. A disillusioned Irina admits sadly, "That woman has taken our Andrei and turned him into a shallow, petty old fogy." He retreats to gambling, his violin, and self-indulgent philosophical musings over his spoiled youth, rather than regaining control of his life. In the play's last scene, Masha watches her brother pushing baby Sophie in a pram and muses, "All our hopes - smashed. Once there was a bell that thousands helped to hoist. Money was no object, no effort was spared. And suddenly it fell and shattered. All at once, just like that. That's how it was with Andrei."

Is there hope for Andrei or not? He wallows in self-pity by the end of the play, however, there is indication he might move to change and grow. Perhaps, he is merely facing an early-mid-life-crisis. He clearly loves his children and he is devoted to his wife. Does this make him pathetic or noble? Chekhov does not provide a clear answer, but he does suggest that Andrei's failures are not his own, but what his family perceives as failures. A year after his father's death he gained weight, "as though my body had been freed from an oppressive burden" and it seems his father wanted him to pursue a "scholarly career." His disappointments with himself stem from the fact that he didn't live up to the expectations set up by his father and, in his death, carried on by his sisters. What Andrei really fights for, supports, and wants from life, he gets by the end of the first scene. He wanted to marry Natasha and he defends her throughout the play, no matter how cruel she becomes. By the end of the play, he is at the cusp of becoming the man he wants to be - in spite of the disapproval of others.

"I'd marry anyone who asked me so long as he was decent. I'd even marry an old man."
Olga, the eldest sisters, bears burdens her other siblings do not. In the opening scene, at twenty-eight, she is considered an old maid. She works and heads the household, lamenting, "All's well in God's world, of course, but I do have the feeling that if I'd married and could have stayed home all day things would have been better." She falls into that classic Chekhovian trap of dwelling on the impossible and her actions now are determined by past events - in this case the death of her mother and their move from Moscow.

They left Moscow eleven years before the beginning of the play with their father. Olga, as the eldest, would have been made the head of the household and responsible for mothering Irina and Masha. She idealizes her father and bears some resentment for her mother. There is some suggestion that Olga's sense of duty to her family caused her to reject a proposal when she was younger. Years later, she regrets that choice and does everything she can to encourage Irina to not make the same mistake. "People don't marry for love, you know, they marry out of duty." Older and wiser, Olga has learned a harsh lesson about idealizing love and longs for the practicality of partnership.

Olga also resists the idea of work. She works out of a sense of duty to her family, but it is not a life she would have chosen. She would have been perfectly happy living her life as the head of a household, and through the play becomes increasingly tense and frustrated as Natasha usurps her role. Once Andrei marries, Olga is displaced from her comfortable role in the family unit, she loses her identity and her status within the home - the only part of her life that gave her purpose and peace. By the end of the play, as the headmistress, she lives at the school and has no escape back into the comfort that her role of privilege once gave her. She is unhappy, yet she seems to be close to self-discovery that may allow her to choose some sort of happiness within the confines of reality. "Our lives aren't over, dear sisters, we shall go on living." Where there is life, there is hope, and perhaps now Olga will be forced to seek it.

"When you take your happiness in snatches, in bits and pieces, and lose it, as I'm about to, you gradually turn hard and malicious."
The middle sister is sensitive, passionate, moody, and dramatic. Masha's passion for life is in constant conflict with her reality and this eventually drives her to carry on an affair rather openly in front of her utterly devoted and kind husband. Masha's choice to marry Kulygin seems motivated by fear as she watched Olga grow old before her time. Masha, terrified to become an old maid like her sister, married at eighteen - likely the first man who asked her. She confesses to Vershinin, "I was afraid of my husband because he was a schoolmaster and I'd just finished school. He seemed oh so learned then, so clever and dignified. Not anymore, sorry to say." To a certain degree, Masha was intimidated by Kulygin's intellect and authority. An older man, established in his career, must have seemed a logical match for the intelligent, young woman. She chose to marry a man who reminded her of her brother - a scholar - only to be disappointed.

Several years later, Masha is full of regret and longs for a man like her father, a military leader. Before Masha and Vershinin's relationship is consummated, she comments, "It may not be the same everywhere, but here in our town the most decent, noble, and cultured people belong to the military."  Bored with her life in her mid-twenties and frustrated with her choices, she seizes the first opportunity for excitement that walks through the door. Vershinin is new, dashing, exciting, and like Masha, unhappily married. Vershinin becomes the outlet for Masha's disappointment and she idealizes him to the point that she cannot see how selfish he truly is. Masha gives Vershinin what he desperately wants . . . constant attention and adoration. Masha chooses to please herself rather satisfy any sense of duty. For a brief time, she has what she wants - passion, romance, and a little scandal. In the end, however, she must go back to the way things were and settle back down into her role as wife.

She is a complicated character in that she is very self-absorbed, moody, arrogant, and sometimes cruel to people she believes to be beneath her. It's easy to see Masha as extremely unsympathetic. But, she isn't a bad person, so much that she is an immature person going through the process of growing up and learning to empathize with others. Her knowledge of love and life has been so far motivated by fear and loss. She married very young and, later regretful of her choice, she retreated into books, poetry, and philosophy as her new "reality." Vershinin awakened something in her she did not expect or recognize. When she can no longer hide the affair, she confesses to her sisters what they already knew. "In a novel it all seems to obvious and trite. Then you fall in love yourself, and you realize nobody knows a thing, we each have to make our own decisions." This is probably Masha's most honest moment in the play, where she begins to understand she has to take responsibility for the rest of her life. In the end, the affair ends. Vershinin's battery is leaving town. Would Masha have ended the affair by choice? It's hard to say. But when it does end, she is quick to accept her new reality and perhaps accept Kulygin's love and devotion for her.

"I'll be your wife, your faithful, obedient wife, but I don't feel any love."

While Olga's greatest regret is never marrying and spending her life working outside the home, Masha's greatest regret is marrying the wrong man. Irina's actions through the play are consistently motivated by these two sources of fear and this fear overpowers her ability to rationalize her own feelings and embrace the possibility of happiness.

At the beginning of the play, Irina is turning twenty, already older than Masha was when she married Kulygin. Irina, unlike Masha, actively chooses to be single in spite of having a variety of suitors. The most likely candidate for a husband is the baron Tuzenbach who is kindly, charming, and completely devoted to Irina. They have a friendship and an easy repoire throughout the play. While, in public and private settings, she treats other men with a level of formality, Tuzenbach is different. She is open and familiar with him, but continues to resist the idea of marrying him. Their first private exchange reveals some insight into the apparent contradiction:

TUZENBACH: Let me be near you a while. What are you thinking about? You're twenty, I'm not thirty yet. Picture all the years ahead of us. A long, procession of days full of my love for you . . .

IRINA: Don't talk to me about love, Nikolai Lvovich.

TUZENBACH: I have a passionate longing for life. I long to struggle, to work, and deep inside me that longing has merged with my love for you Irina. And then, you're so beautiful that life seems beautiful too! What are you thinking about?

IRINA: You say that life seems beautiful. Yes, but what if it no more than seems so? Life hasn't been beautiful for my sisters and me. It's stifled us, like a weed . . . Now I'm crying. I mustn't. Work- that's what I need. Work. The reason we're so unhappy and take such a gloomy view of life is that we don't know what work is. We come from people who had nothing but contempt for work.

Living out in the country has cut Irina and her sisters from opportunity, and Irina over-intellectualizes and doubts everything she feels. While their father encouraged education in all of his children, it has gone to waste in the limited chances they have to apply what they know. Instead of using their learning in any practical setting, the siblings sit around the house and philosophize themselves into one existential crisis after another. Irina's actions are always motivated by fear - fear of become either like Masha (married off young and desperately unhappy) or like Olga (unmarried, working, and desperately unhappy). Irina's desire to delay marriage is an attempt to avoid becoming like Masha, but her desire for work seems to contradict her fear of being like Olga. Irina's view on work, however, is much different than her sister's. She sees Olga as one of these people who was raised to have "nothing but contempt for work." In many ways, she believes Olga chooses unhappiness by not finding pleasure in a life of service to others. She believes she is different and that, through work and contributing to society she will find happiness.

This is not at all in conflict with Tuzenbach's own desire for work. He repeatedly articulates the value of work and his contempt for being born to a privileged class. He and Irina have the same world view and the same vision for life. Given these factors, Irina's reluctance to marry seems completely irrational, after all Tuzenbach is her friend, her confidante, and her ticket out of this small town and meaningless existence. It's not stubbornness on Irina's part, it's that she really believes that she does not love him and she fears a loveless marriage. This is the true tragedy of Irina's character. It's not that she doesn't love Tuzenbach, it's that she doesn't really know what love is and how it's "supposed" to feel. In Act III, Olga encourages Irina to "marry the baron" out of duty rather than love. Irina cries out, "I'd been waiting for us to move to Moscow, thinking I'd meet my true love there. I dreamt about him, loved him . . . But now I see it's nonsense, pure nonsense." Irina's notions of passion and "true love" are the fantasies of a young woman believing that love and romance are the same thing. By the end of the scene, Irina relents, deciding it would be better to marry the baron than to be alone.

Act IV introduces a more confident Irina. It is the eve of her marriage to Tuzenbach. She is ready to start a new career as a teacher and to become a wife. Irina, it seems, is ready to choose a happiness for herself, but something hangs over the heads of the would-be lovers. Tuzenbach seems tense and uneasy where through the play he has been hopeful, passionate, and confident in his choices. He has, unknown to Irina, committed to a dual with Solyony. In their last moment together on stage, a nervous Tuzenbach tries to get Irina to confess a passion for him, but she refuses:

TUZENBACH: Tomorrow I'll be taking you away. We'll work, we'll be rich, all my dreams will come alive. You'll be happy. There's only one thing missing, one thing. You don't love me.

IRINA: I haven't got it in me. I'll be your wife, your faithful, obedient wife, but I don't feel any love, and there's nothing I can do about it. I've never been in love. I've dreamt of it day and night, but my heart is like a fine piano no one can play because the key is lost.

Her reaction is harsh and does not reflect what she does feel, but cannot articulate. Earlier in the scene, Irina describes her feelings to Chebutykin and Kulygin, "When the baron asked for  my hand, well, I thought is over and decided to say yes. He's a good man, very good, extraordinarily good . . . And suddenly I felt my soul had wings. I brightened up, breathed easy, felt ready to work again . . ." The feelings of elation and peace Irina experienced are certainly those of love and affection for Tuzenbach and a knowledge that she was making the right decision. Yet she cannot admit these feelings to her fiance when he asks because she has spent so much of her life idealizing love that when she has it (and even feels it), she cannot recognize the feeling. It's not that "the key is lost" - it's that she doesn't even understand what the key looks like. Irina has fallen in love with a fantasy of love and when the reality of love's promise and pain finally occurs to her, it is too late.

The tensions between reality and fantasy influence the motivations and actions of all the characters in the play. The consequences for Irina are, unfortunately, life and death. Her journey beyond the play hints of being one of acceptance of reality and she reaffirms her desire to work and service to others.