You can have your Anton Chekhov served however you want it in these parts. Earnestly creative takes on the classics, au courant spins on Chekhovian themes (like “Stupid F— Bird” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”) and the occasional, trendily experimental re-imagination are all reliably produced on Boston stages, by turns.
But if you like your Russian playwrights straight up, you can take a deep drink of the strong stuff this weekend. A production of Chekhov’s 1901 play “Three Sisters” by Maly Drama Theatre of Saint Petersburg is in town — all four acts and three-plus hours of it, spoken in Russian, no less. And it’s wonderful.
Brought to the Cutler Majestic Theatre by ArtsEmerson, the touring production runs here only through Sunday, March 6. (The projection of English surtitles on a screen above the stage means seats a little further back in the room are preferable to ones closer up, from a neck-craning standpoint.)
Directed by Lev Dodin, who has been the artistic director at Maly since 1983, this “Three Sisters” respectfully treats the text like the icy poetry it is, but infuses it with combustible passion that belies the sense of stasis and, as one character puts it, the “secret dread” that haunts these proceedings.
The play’s titular siblings are Olga (Irina Tychinina), the spinster-in-waiting; Masha (Ksenia Rappoport), the bookish one with an older husband who turned out, upon closer examination, not to be as much of a catch as she thought he was when he wooed her; and Irina (Elizaveta Boyarskaya, positively excellent), at 20 years old the youngest and the prettiest, who rejects suitors as she waits to be struck with a transformational love. They while away the hours with their brother Andrey (a babyfaced Alexander Bikovsky) in the family home out in the sticks, where they’ve lived for 11 years after growing up in cosmopolitan Moscow.
Their memories of Moscow haunt these women, as they seem to resent every aspect of their exiled life in the provinces, a full 15 miles from the nearest train station. (We don’t learn, I don’t believe, how they ended up there or why exactly a return to Moscow seems to be merely a pipe dream.) Several military brigades are stationed nearby, so the house is always full of soldiers who come by for dinner or to woo Irina.
Alexander Borovsky’s set is dominated by the wooden façade of the house, with open windows and doorways (and space between boards) that allow Dodin to stage scenes far upstage, inside the home. The mix of claustrophobia and solitude these characters feel is augmented by the way they are constantly hovering over one another, most often staring through windows, silent and unseen. (There are as many overheard conversations in this staging as in an 18th century French intrigue; or, for that matter, an episode of “Downton Abbey.”) Dodin creates stage pictures that look like scenes on despairingly lonely postcards.
After each act the house set moves further downstage, appearing to loom larger and larger, as if the anchor-like weight it exerts upon the lives of this stranded, stunted family increases by the year.
This interpretation is teeming with artistic choices. You feel that the director and his very fine actors have fully internalized this work, and earned the right to shade Chekhov’s text with the insights they’ve uncovered.
Olga is icy, steeling herself for a life of loneliness. Masha lets out her emotions in uncontained bursts; in a remarkable bit of blocking, her cuckolded husband Kuligin (Sergey Vlasov) must peel her, limb by limb, from the arms of her departing lover, Vershinin (Igor Chernevich), a colonel in the locally stationed brigade. As her husband then wraps Masha in his own arms, he’s both claiming and consoling her. It’s devastating. (The script makes it clear she’s crying emphatically, but has Kuligin enter right after Vershinin’s departure.)
Another eruption of emotion envelops Irina and one of her suitors. After telling him she’ll obey him but never love him, he kisses her abruptly. As they furiously embrace, the confusion in Boyarskaya’s face is startling, seeming to mix revulsion, resignation and a newly discovered passion. (The stage direction in the translation I consulted says merely that the man “kisses her hands.”)
Chekhov was certainly fond of stating a theme and then underlining it repeatedly in shiny gold Sharpie. Here, we see competing views on how to transcend the basic absurdities of human existence.
Vershinin is convinced that happiness is presently unobtainable, but society will advance until life is one day “unimaginably beautiful.” The soldier Tuzenbach (Oleg Ryazanzev), a baron, romanticizes the toil of the worker and pledges to find meaning in that kind of life. Chebutikin (Sergey Kuryshev), an army doctor, retreats within the soundproof walls of nihilism. “Perhaps it only seems to us that we exist, but really we aren’t here at all. I don’t know anything — nobody knows anything,” he says (in the translation), not consciously aware that what he really seeks is to be excused from responsibility for his actions — whether smashing a family heirloom or fighting a war.
“Three Sisters” is pretty short on the whole affirming-the-value-of-life-despite-its-difficulty thing. But the success of this production is pounded home in its last moments, after a needless tragedy cruelly rips away one character’s already-compromised vision of happiness.
“It doesn’t matter,” Chebutikin obliviously repeats to himself, over and over. As we survey the wreckage of these lives, we can’t help feeling that nothing could be further from the truth.
Jeremy D. Goodwin contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, The ARTery (where he is also an editor), American Theatre and many other publications. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.