St. Petersburg's Maly Drama Theatre, led by the superstar director Lev Dodin, simply has no peer in interpreting Chekhov. On their numerous international tours, Dodin's productions do the sacred work of dispelling clichés about the master's purported gloom: Platonov splashes giddily through real water, The Seagull, with its gliding bicycle entrances, could actually take flight. After a buoyant Uncle Vanya last season, the company returns with Three Sisters. And it's a total shock. The golden summers of those other productions have blackened into cold midnight—Dodin escalates right past a Chekhovian twilight to take us into a Lear-scape, a hell.
It's an appropriate Shakespearian allusion, since here too we have three sisters and a home divided; though this time foolish brother Andrey (Alexander Bykovsky) does more damage than a thousand Gonerils. At first, the house itself—a facade of rough boards and large windows—lurks at the back of the stage. As each act ends and the Prozorov family loses ground, this structure rolls forward, swallowing actors into its blackness. With that gliding shadow at their backs, the sisters have no chance against despair, despite a surprising amount of extratextual frolicking. (Purists will be bemused to see Irina kissing Soleny, a man the script insists she despises.)
As ever, the company does exquisite, detailed work, notably Igor Chernevich as unlikely seducer Vershinin. It's just such pleasure to see naturalism encased so brilliantly in stylization: For instance, most of the play is delivered from a set of lip-of-the-stage stairs, straight out into the audience. Of course, this may be simple observation. We're best at conversation while watching the world from our stoops, and philosophy often emerges at the threshold.—Helen Shaw