Chekhov's "Three Sisters" gets a risqué update in U-M’s "Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow"
Playwright Halley Feiffer had the clever idea of taking Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters and kicking it into the 21st century.
It’s one of those creations that begins with the question, “What if?” What if Chekhov were writing his play today using raw contemporary language with lots of profanity, slang, catchphrases, snarky attitudes, and even a few funny jokes backed by some hot early 2000s music?
The result is Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow being presented at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre. Director Ryan Dobrin takes the idea a bit further in his production at the university by setting Chekhov’s characters “in a more diverse context,” according to a program note. The result is a comic mashup that draws, again according to the program notes, on the affectations of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians as well as on gender-identity issues.
The playbill also comes with a warning that the play may be “upsetting, offensive, or triggering for some audience members” and advises caution. Some of those who might respond that way are fans of Chekhov who might not appreciate what Feiffer has done to his play.
Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov family set in 1900-04 provincial Russia. They are an educated, cultured family. The Prozorov family moved from their home in Moscow to a quiet, boring provincial town. The only relief comes from a local military outpost, where the soldiers come to woo the sisters. Feiffer’s title comes from the sisters' complaint that everything was wonderful before their now deceased parents moved them from Moscow.
The sisters are Olga, the eldest and a teacher; Masha, the middle one, in an unhappy marriage; and Irina, the youngest, who most yearns for the bright lights of the capital city. In this production, two of the sisters are played by male actors. Irina is played by a female actress. The family also includes the sisters’ inept and weak brother, Andrey.
Feiffer’s play literally opens with a "shit" storm from Olga complaining about her horrible life. Feiffer certainly saw a connection with the aimless lives of people famous for being famous and the Prozorovs. Boredom has become a lifestyle, complaining has become an art, and insensitivity has become the norm.
Dobrin’s production plays with gender identity and what is often called “toxic masculinity.” The soldiers wear tight leather outfits with shorts and open tops popular in some sectors of the gay community. The male actors playing Olga and Masha flounce around in dresses. The clothes are sometimes 1900, sometimes 2022, sometimes fitting the character, sometimes not.
The play follows the outline of Chekhov’s play in a condensed 90-minute version. But this is not a translation of Chekhov. It’s intended as a zippy sitcom take, a prolonged Saturday Night Live skit (with, of course, fashionably upsetting content). That means characters shout, scream, and say a lot of naughty words. Sometimes it’s funny, often it’s not. The nuance, empathy, warmth, and sorrow of Chekhov is lost in Feiffer’s attempt to expand wry humor into broad bombast.
What is good is the acting. The actors seem to be enjoying themselves working with everyday language and romping about in unfamiliar dress and gestures. They get what they’re doing and do it well. It is probably a good pick for the season as a contemporary play that raises current issues in a comic format. It’s the kind of play, film, and television production the actors may wind up doing professionally.
Tatiana Cloobeck has, perhaps, the choicest role in the play. She plays Natasha, Andrey’s girlfriend and later wife. Natasha is the villain of the piece, loathed by the three sisters and even more isolated than they are. Cloobeck brings this haughty and slightly demented Natasha to life. She and Atticus Olivet as Andrey perform a funny and ribald seduction scene. And Cloobeck’s dresses grow more outlandish as her power increases.
Olivet’s Andrey is similar to the Chekhov character except for the comic excess.
Irina is played by A. Hadley Gorstine and clearly gets the Paris Hilton character. Gorstine is a self-centered girl-woman who flutters about bemoaning the lost joys of Moscow more than anyone. But she also brings some sensitivity to her main issue: two soldiers competing for her attention.
The male actors playing Olga and Masha take different approaches in their interpretation of being a woman. Miles Elliot’s Olga is loud, openly bitter, and retains a mix of masculine and feminine. Elliot sparks the opening with Olga’s self-pitying rant. Myles Sherwin Mathews plays Masha with more flash. He plays what is essentially a gay character with broad mannerisms and florid speech. It is Masha who is trapped in a marriage to an optimist and engages in an affair with an officer at the outpost.
Sam Smiley as the romantic Tutzenbach and Rohan Malerita as the aggressive Solyony vie for Irina’s hand, but they also flirt with each other. The actors balance the mixed feelings that lead to an off-stage deadly duel.
Charles Lee-Rossing as Vershinin, Masha’s lover, swaggers in like Fonzie, in a black leather jacket and a look-at-me pose. Lee-Rossing plays the conflicted lover and family man with the dash of a matinee idol.
Myah Bridgewater as the nanny Anfisa and Adam Rogers as the doorkeeper Ferapont represent another Chekhov interest: the rigid class structure of czarist Russia. Here it’s played for laughs. Bridgewater walks with a deep bow, practically scratching the floor. It looks painful but she makes it comic. Rogers is appropriately stoic as he serves his clueless employers.
Other cast members are Edie Crowley as Chebutykin, the alcoholic family doctor, and Clara Dossetter as Kulgin, Masha’s doting and ever-hopeful husband. Both are cast in male roles, meant I assume, to challenge our rigid views of masculinity and femininity.
The ending of Three Sisters is emotional as the sisters are drained and worse off than ever. Moscow tries a version of that ending but it has no real resonance since the characters are types here rather than real people.
But there is a nice surprise at the end!
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre & Drama production of "Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow" continues at 7:30 pm on September 30 and October 6, at 8 pm on October 1, 7-8, and at 2 pm on October 2 and 9 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the university. For tickets, phone 734-764-2538 or visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu.