The challenge of Chekhov | September 14, 2007 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

Arts & Entertainment - September 14, 2007

The challenge of Chekhov

Pear Avenue Theatre takes admirable swipe at "Three Sisters," but ultimately misses

by Melody Dye

Anton Chekhov is one of Russia's most human and accessible writers. Nonetheless, "Three Sisters," which debuted Saturday at the Pear Avenue Theatre, is an ambitious piece of theater which perhaps required a bit more subtlety than The Pear was ready for.

Chekhov, writing at the turn of the century, captured the pessimism and longing of his era. His play is a sketch of varying moods, often wrapped in mundane situations. His characters are prone to gossipy small talk about a girlfriend's bad sense of style, for instance, before pedantically questioning the meaning of life.

There is little in the way of action. Instead, each act is comprised of a series of moments in the lives of its characters: a dinner party, an exchange over brandy, an interrupted conversation between lovers.

Here lies the difficulty of the play: Its moments are ordinary, trite, even boring. So the brilliance of "Three Sisters" has to be teased out in production, which can't afford a hint a melodrama or any wrong note. All actors must be pitch-perfect, balanced internally and against each other.

In other words, this isn't Annie Oakley singing and dancing and shooting up the stage. It's a family of frustrated Russian aristocrats asking whether life, in itself, is sufficient; whether there is reason or logic to human suffering; whether one should put faith in progress. Most theaters are intimidated by such a tall order, and it's to The Pear's credit that they dared take it on.

The demands are heightened by the physical space of The Pear itself, which can barely fit more audience members than actors. This intimacy creates a voyeuristic impression of having dropped in on another's life. Realism — and not theatrics — becomes a necessity.

Meanwhile, the translation by Craig Lucas creates another difficulty. Lucas puts Chekhov's words into colloquial English that strays uncomfortably into modern slang. The mix of contemporary vernacular with formal speech is jarring, and The Pear's actors don't seem to know what to do with it. They might have been better served with the classic translation by Constance Garnett.

Due to these obstacles, a few of the cast members seem uncomfortable in their skins. It's as if they're reciting in a foreign language they don't understand — even when the accent is dead-on, the stresses are all wrong, as though the meaning has escaped them. In a piece that relies on all of its parts, this is problematic.

Similarly, the larger play lacks a steady vision. Some of the cast members act with fervor and intensity, others with theatrical flare, still others with casual ease. The mismatch is disconcerting, particularly in scenes where the whole cast takes the stage.

That said, a few actors stand out: Shannon Stowe as Natasha, the tempestuous redhead; John Hutchinson as Chebutykin, the nihilistic doctor; Andrew Harkins as Vershinin, the love-struck major.

In a different production, perhaps, these performances might have garnered standing ovations, but here they glow and fade. If the play disappoints, it's because it's uneven, and because some of its richest insights are lost in translation.


From "Three Sisters," translated by Constance Garnett

TUZENBAKH: In a million years life will be just the same; it doesn't change, it remains stationary, following its own laws which we have nothing to do with or which, anyway, we'll never find out. Migratory birds, cranes for instance, fly backwards and forwards, and whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they'll still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why ...

MASHA: But still, isn't there a meaning?

TUZENBAKH: Meaning. ... Here it's snowing. What meaning is there in that? [A pause.]

MASHA: I think man ought to have faith or ought to seek a faith, or else his life is empty, empty. ... To live and not to understand why cranes fly; why children are born; why there are stars in the sky. ...You've got to know what you're living for or else it's all nonsense.


What: Pear Avenue Theatre presents "Three Sisters," a play written by Anton Chekhov and translated by Craig Lucas

When: Through Sept. 30, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Where: The Pear Avenue Theater, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View

Tickets: $25 general admission and $20 for seniors and students on Friday and Saturday; $20 general admission and $15 for seniors and students on Thursday and Sunday

Info: Call the theater at (650) 254-1148, e-mail or visit

E-mail Melody Dye at


Posted by Theatre goer, a resident of Shoreline West
on Sep 14, 2007 at 1:11 pm

I have seen the Pear production of Three Sisters; it's one of the most magnificent things they've ever done.

However, it's unfortunate that Melody Dye wasn't up to the level of interpretive excellence necessary to understand the nuanced beauty of perhaps the best production of a Chekov play that I and my friends have ever seen - and, we are not amateur theatre goers.

In all, the Pear production of "Three Sisters" is marvelous, and very illuminating. It's experiencing - as do most Pear Theatre productions - a sold out run.

If you have time - even if you've never read a Chekov play - go see this wonderful rendition of a story that moves, and reflects back life and its depth more than most things we experience as entertainment today.

[Remaining 1,220 words of post removed by Mountain View Voice staff]

Posted by Shirley, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 14, 2007 at 1:20 pm

i was there with "Theatre goer" and couldn't agree more

for addtional, in my view, far more competent reviews of this work, see the following. these reviews are not without their quibbles, but they - unlike the voice' review - do full justice to this exceptional production

Web Link

and, here's one from the San Mateo Times (I think)

"Three Sisters," by Anton Chekhov. Translation by Craig Lucas.
PERFORMED BY: The Pear Avenue Theatre
WHERE: 1220 Pear Ave. Unit K
WHEN: 8 PM Thur. to Sat.; 2 PM Sundays. Closes September 30
TICKETS: $15 to $25.
CONTACT: 650-254-1148
When you attend a show at the Pear Avenue Theatre, it's likely
you will enjoy a performance as good as you will see anywhere.
That's because many of the best of the Bay Area performers are
drawn to this 5 year-old forty-seat enterprise that specializes in
the best of the theatrical literature, irrespective of commercial
And, a chance to perform in the "Three Sisters," by Anton
Chekhov, is just the sort of classic work to which serious
performers flock.
As a result, director Jeanie Forte was able to gather together
one of the best casts in memory. Forte, herself, is an
accomplished, insightful and sensitive director and with these well
cast actors, and another period-inspired set by Ron Gasparinetti,
this sizes up to be a memorable performance.
The three sisters are from the Prozorov family, raised along
with their brother, in comfortable circumstances in Moscow, as
children of a military father, whose death, along with their
mother, brings them now to live in a small "nowhere" town in the
Olga (Meredith Hagedorn) is the eldest, a spinster, and the
inheritor of the "mother of the family" role.
Masha (Elizabeth Coy) is the most beautiful of the three, but
full of ennui from her marriage at age eighteen to a much older
Fyodor Kulygin (John Baldwin), a high school teacher who is boring,
self-centered, somewhat pompous, but an eternally loving and
forgiving husband.
What Kulygin needs to forgive is her affair with the local
military commandant Alexander Vershinin (Andrew Harkins),
complicated by his being married and with two children.
The youngest is Irina (Sarah Cook), eternally yearning to
return to her happier days in Moscow, even as she is fending off
the marriage proposals of another military officer, Baron Nikolay
Tusenbakh (Rob Dario).
In the European fashion of the day, sisters defer to and
protect brothers and Andrey (Thom Gorrebeeck), needs much of that
when he marries the scheming, more common Natasha (Shannon Stowe),
who sets about to take control over the household.
A 60 year-old army doctor Ivan Chebutykin (John Hutchinson),
is a close family friend, and a cynical onlooker and belittler of
the importance of the typical human foibles that assail this
family, as only Chekhov's great human insights can record in a few
hours, and are the typical dynamics of most upper class families,
David Hamilton is excellent as Captain Vasily Solyony, a
sarcastic pain-in-the-butt guest in the house along with his fellow
officer Baron Tusenbakh.
Jim Johnson is an actor who brings unique nuances to each
minor character role he undertakes and, as Ferapont, the town's
District Council watchman, he brings great relief comedy at sorely
needed times.
Lynda Marcum is perfect as Anfisa, the aging family servant,
fearful of being thrown out into the cold world as she becomes less
This is a far-looking and perceptive play, set in about 1900,
where Chekhov foresees the decay of Russia's priveledged classes
that are eventually completely terminated by the Russia's
Revolution eighteen years later.
Also, in true Russian introspective tradition, Chekhov blends
in the kind of philosophical musing that only the upper classes had
the education and time in which to engage.
But, that doesn't in one whit diminish the enjoyment of a
great theatrical work, constructed by one of the world's greatest
playwrights, in a very approachable modern translation by Craig

Posted by registered user, Don Frances, a resident of Mountain View Voice Editor
on Sep 14, 2007 at 3:12 pm

Theatre goer,

While we very much welcome opposing points of view on Town Square, we don't allow personal attacks on the writers themselves, be they from our staff or other posters.

The part of your post I've left up provides one example of what I mean -- "it's unfortunate that Melody Dye wasn't up to the level of interpretive excellence necessary ..." -- which is a fancy way of saying she's stupid. I've taken out a full 1,220 words worth of similar remarks, with every paragraph calling her by name and finding some new way to insult her personally.

Posted by Bernie Brightman, a resident of North Whisman
on Sep 14, 2007 at 3:31 pm

I like and admire the Pear, but Shirley's comment " When you attend a show at the Pear Avenue Theatre, it's likely you will enjoy a performance as good as you will see anywhere." struck me just a bit funny. You see, the last time I went, an actor actually forgot his lines and had to very obviously back up and repeat them. I see plays all over the Bay Area and at Ashland and this is one of the first times I've ever witnessed this.

But I wouldn't suggest this deter anyone from going to the Pear though.

Posted by Loved the play, a resident of Monta Loma
on Sep 14, 2007 at 8:44 pm

I didn't see Theatre Goer's review, but I have just read your reviewers take on that play. Was your reviewer at the same performance I was at, the one where several people stood up applauding at final curtain?

Much of what your critic has written seems disjointed, and more about what she thinks she knows, rather than what she saw and heard. There are too many thatre critics writing from the head, with little heart showing up in their work

I heard last evening that the entire run is nearly sold out, as often happens at the Pear. From now on I'll look elsewhere when I see a review from this theatre critic. Thank goodness I didn't see her review until after I'd sen this play. It was great!

Posted by Chekhov enthusiast, a resident of another community
on Sep 22, 2007 at 9:29 am

I just saw this production last night. I couldn't agree more with Melody Dye. I favor the Richard Nelson and Van Itallie translations of Chekhov, but I'm really just quibbling. Solid cast, middling translation, lacking the proper tempi as well as higher and lower emotional ranges, not personalized enough, playing area too small for such a large cast, needed the air taken out... capable cast, unsure direction. Check out the Nikos Psacharopoulus TV version of The Seagull or the various films by the Russian director of Burnt by the Sun to get a better idea of the performance level that is needed. I am grateful that other are as passionate about Chekhov as I am, as a final note.