A House, a Home
Adapted from Chekhov's Three Sisters by Ben Hoover
Through April 14 at the EMP Collective
At Glass Mind Theatre's A House, A Home-based on Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters-audience members get a ticket and a ballot. The ticket lets them into the EMP Collective's gallery/theatre/music space. The ballot asks what sort of production they want to see. There are four choices: 1. Hearty Laughs, 2. Cheap Drinks, 3. Critical Engagement, or 4. A Little Bit of Crazy.
Number three, I know, got at least one vote. But that lost by an overwhelming margin to number four. According to plan, the Glass Mind ensemble started from a "crazy" ending, toward which they would work, and then added prearranged pieces after that.
This version of Three Sisters wasn't very crazy at all. Maybe that's because the bar for "crazy" Chekhov was set at the Bell Foundry last year, when the Acme Corporation ruthlessly deconstructed the Constance Garnett translation of Three Sisters in Thr3e Zisters. That version of the Chekhov classic involved death metal by Ramstein and the three Prozorovs as zombies literally raised out of the earth by members of the Russian military.
There was a little bit of healthy irreverence in Glass Mind's take on Three Sisters, but in the end it was a provocative and even respectful riff on the Russian masterpiece. I use the word "riff" because this was neither an adaptation, really, nor a translation. With his cast, playwright Ben Hoover used several translations of Three Sisters as a sort of prompt for a collaborative attempt at repositioning it into the 21st century. In other words, this performance is about process.
Cast members occupy half the seats and chat with audience members, who get called out to take shots of vodka. On a screen, we get a gallery of the characters, which has the effect of cementing them as types even before they make it onstage. Then there's a quickie high school AP-class intro to Russian literature of the 19th century.
There's some gentle audience baiting as well. Audience members are asked if anyone knows what Chekhov's position is on guns in plays. (The answer is, of course, that old saw about it going off in the third act if it is hung on the wall in the first.) And we are reminded that this is only a play and that theater is really a reconstruction of reality, and not reality itself. In case we wondered.
That's about as crazy as it gets. By the time we move into the house of the three sisters, their hapless suitors, and their hangers-on, playwright Hoover and the cast are on a high wire. There's no frontal nudity, there's not much drinking, so it's not that crazy, but the results are funny and occasionally brilliant, if rarely uplifting.
There's one measure of success left. Does Hoover, with his highly involved ensemble, use the theater to put these shattered pieces of Three Sisters back together in some comprehensible way, or just to poke lazy fun at an old literary warehouse? The title of the play-A House, A Home-indicates that Hoover and Glass Mind are aware of that challenge of seeking wholeness.
The process, indeed, seems a little forced at the beginning. But as it progresses, A House, A Home develops its own rhythm and defines itself. It's a little hard to articulate why it works, except to say that if it didn't, it would fall flat on its face. And that doesn't happen. Two hours go by quickly. Thumbs up, as Roger Ebert would say.
Maybe the ensemble found kindred spirits in the Prozorovs and their ilk. In 1900, members of the educated class were struggling with their mortgages. Aimless domesticity was a panicked response to a world whose story these characters were no longer part of. The figures of this once-landed class lived their lives knowing that whatever they did-whatever ideals or escapades they latch on to-the action was somewhere else. History was moving too fast for humans to make sense. Sound familiar?
In A House, A Home, the world flashes by as random Flickr-based scenarios. Olga (Amy Parochetti as a schoolmarm with a tightly oiled topknot) pops Ritalin. Masha (Ann Turiano, a bored Bohemian in mid-life stasis) flirts with divorce and rolls her eyes. Irina (Jasmine Andersen) seems resigned to playing life as reality television.
Andrew Peters plays Andrey, the hapless brother of the Prozorov sisters, henpecked by his wife, Natasha (Lynn Morton). Here, Andrey has been transformed into an Oblomovian blogger in pajamas. His wife has squeezed him for all he's worth (and created a brood of little monsters), while his sisters merely tolerate him. His response is to log into Wordpress and create a blog-about cooking or love or anything.
The idea of immortality or religion or even fame (or the virtue of work) has passed him by. He wants to go viral. Nothing happens. A sister wonders if his time might be better spent. "What are you doing to change the world?" he cries out in a moment of defensive rage. She doesn't have an answer. It's a thought-provoking moment.
The young Irina is prodded by Kulygin -played as a 1970s game-show host by Joshua Buursma -to choose her husband-to-be. Joel Ottenheimer plays a wonderfully oily, obsessive-compulsive Solynoy. Veteran Baltimore actor Dave Gamble's endearing Chebutykin wanders around lost in early-stage Alzheimer's. Tuzenbach (Alex Smith) is the Sensitive over-Uxorius Male and a distant relative of the Kennedy clan. Irina goes for Tuzenbach's Nice Guy, to her regret.
Hoover isn't so much cleverly relocating Three Sisters to the internet as reminding us that the estate doesn't really exist. People in this production are presented walking around in a virtual world, propelled by Ritalin, reality TV, and lost opportunities. They sleep around but seem incapable of communicating. The occasional flash of idealism-which lit up Chekhov's original-has been disposed of. The Moscow of the play is no longer a New Jerusalem.
So where is the hero here? There is one character in Chekhov, one we all hate, who manages to take over the ownership of the estate and establish it as her personal domain. Spoiler alert (Hear the gun firing?) That's Natasha, the petty tyrant and over-fertile wife. Maybe in this age of vaguely defined boundaries and viral blogs, the characters in A House, A Home need a dictator who knows where to draw the lines and tell us where home is actually located. Just as this Glass Mind production is willing to flirt with chaos (and going viral), the actors and Hoover also search for a way to make this estate, the theater itself, their own. By my definition, at least, that ambition is not even a little bit crazy.