Stupendous Chekhov adaptation concludes Euro Theater Prize

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Every once in a while, a work of art comes along that compels you to reassess your views about a given medium and the possibilities it offers. A prime example is Russian theater production “Three Sisters,” presented at the 14th European Theater Prize, which concluded its activities last week in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Directed by veteran director, and former winner for the European Prize, Lev Dodin, the latest adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic play was not only the most accomplished performance I watched in St. Petersburg, it was the finest rendition of a classic text I’ve seen in many years.

Dodin adheres closely to the original text, charting the trials and tribulations of the Prozorov sisters following their father’s death.

Dodin bypasses the subtle humor buried in Chekhov’s text for a somber, lyrical approach stressing on the dead end the three sisters come face-to-face with. The set is composed of a large façade representing the Prozorov household. The characters’ psychological status is conveyed through their changing positions in relation to their household and to one another. Their movement, as organic as it appears to be, is choreographed in a fashion that puts the drama into motion.

Complemented by evocative, haunting lighting, Dodin’s “Three Sisters” is pure poetry; sad, affecting and astonishingly beautiful. What strikes me the most about both Dodin’s adaptation and Chekhov’s masterful text is its quietness; calm, mounting despair menacingly simmering under the surface that never finds an outlet for release.

This quality is reflected in the great performances by the stellar cast. It’s difficult to single out a single performer: Irina Tychinina as the resilient, regal older sister Olga, Irina Tychinina as the vulnerable, unhappily married middle sister Masha and lizaveta Boyarskaya as the beautiful, fierce younger sister Irina, are all stunning, delivering incredibly subtle and natural performance devoid of any hints of theatricality.

Since it was published 110 years ago, Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” remains as relevant and piercing as ever. This is a story about wasted lives and broken dreams, of entrapped souls attempting, and failing, to find escape, of the elusiveness of happiness, love and justice. Dodin’s “Three Sisters” is one of the few transcending experiences you constantly long for but rarely encounter. The 15-minute standing ovation the play received is a testament to Dodin’s adaptation which, according to American Theater editor Jim O’Quinn, is among the finest he’s ever seen.

Two winners of the New Realities prizes made a second appearance in the last days of the fest with new performances: Vesturport and Farm in the Cave. Icelandic troupe Vesturport, the incontestable show stealers of the awards, followed their impressive adaptation of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” with a loopy interpretation of Goethe’s “Faust.”

Unlike “The Metamorphosis,” “Faust” deviates considerably from Goethe’s exceedingly familiar tragedy. Thorsteinn Gunnarsson plays Johann, a once great actor now a resident in a nursing home, who aspires to perform the only role he has never played: Doctor Faustus. His powerlessness and unrequited love to young nurse Greta drives him to suicide, only to be saved last minute by the devil, Mefisto.

As in the original story Mefisto makes a pact with Johann: his soul in exchange for eternal youth. And thus begins the second act as the play swiftly descends into parody.

Vesturport was founded a decade ago by director Gisli Örn Garðarsson who made a name for his unusual adaptations of classic texts such as “Woyzeck” and “Romeo and Juliet” (up next for them are “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Robin Hood”). Their productions are big, flamboyant and highly entertaining. “Faust” is no different, featuring a bevy of flying demons, explosions, rock tunes (composed by Nick Cave) and an ambitious set that include a wide net extended over the audiences’ head where characters freely roam.

While this razzle-dazzle works perfectly with the flow of the story in the first part, it becomes a burden in a second, overshadowing the drama and exposing the weaknesses of Garðarsson’s overly sentimental treatment. The mystery of the first’s act central conceit — whether Johann’s meeting with the devil is real or imagined — is abandoned in favor of a mishandled love story that veers towards corniness. By the end of the performance, with scenes of the two young lovers soaring high above the stage, I felt I was watching “The Lion King.”

Vesturport, I realized later, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Their productions are inventive, garish and, on occasion, silly, and they certainly eye a larger, mainstream audience. Their productions, thus, are hits or misses. “The Metamorphosis” was certainly a hit; “Faust,” not quite.

Czech dance theater company returned for their second showcase “The Journey,” a stripped-down, minimalistic performance comprised of snippets of dances and songs related to the company’s main preoccupation with the immigrant experience and displacement.

Accompanied by percussionist and a screen showing performers in rehearsal, the company’s members venture into creating unusual dances and songs inspired by the weeping of Eastern Slovakian women, folk song of Ruthenian émigrés and the unsent letters of workers’ wives.

“The Journey” is not meant to be a proper performance but rather an intimate insight into the method of the talented, ambitious company. Although it lacks coherence of predecessor performance “The Theater,” there’s something quite hypnotic about “The Journey” in the way it translates specific emotions and experiences into music and dance, molding immediate sensations of longing, fear and grief into an intricate, if equally immediate, portrait of an unseen people inhabiting a rapidly vanishing culture.

Less successful was Portuguese Teatro Meridional, another dance theater company, with their performance “1974.” The show chronicles three interrelated stages in recent Portuguese history: the Estado Novo dictatorship, the 1974 Carnation Revolution and Portugal’s entry into the European Union.

Unfolding in a series on wordless anecdotes employing improvisations and formally-designed sketches, “1974” attempts to present a subjective account of Portugal’s tumultuous history that focuses primarily on smaller, less significant moments. The concept behind the performance is intriguing, but it never truly works.

Compared to the strong physicality of Farm in the Cave, Teatro Meridional appears clumsy, languid and unfocused; their movement lacks harmony and the expressed ideas are somewhat puerile. The course of events explored in the show is rife with opportunities that the company, alas, fails to cease.

The winner of the 14th European Theater Prize was German director Peter Stein, one of the grand masters of postwar theater. Stein came to St. Petersburg with two performances: A production of Heinrich von Kleist’s “Der zerbrochne Krug” (The Broken Jug) and an hour-long solo monologue of “Faust” accompanied by a piano.

Boasting Stein’s greatest assets — careful staging, reverence to text, beautiful set-design, finely-tuned performances — I, nevertheless, found “The Broken Jug” static and non-engaging, lacking the imagination and sensitivity of Dodin’s work.

Stein was the talk of the Awards for all the wrong reasons. On the last day, critics were surprised to learn that all seminars held in his honor were scrapped. Later that evening, and before his “Faust” performance, Stein deliberately kept his microphone on during rehearsals, grumbling and cursing about the lighting and sound cues and pleading for an English translator to communicate with the Russian technicians.

He later apologized to the audience, stating that this is the kind of blunder he’s always tried to avoid throughout his entire career and that he didn’t have sufficient time to rehearse his performance. The cancellation of his discussion was never explained (no press releases were given out during the fest).

The Stein fiasco was not the only controversy this year. The perplexing absence of any performances by British director Katie Mitchell, one the New Realities prize winners, raised eyebrows as circulating reports maintained that the organizers refused to pay Mitchell to stage her recent elaborate productions.

The choice of the 2010 New Realities winners, such as Teatro Meridional, also raised several question marks regarding the jury, the selection and the process of submission.


Portuguese Company Teatro Meridional’s “1974.”.


German director Peter Stein.

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