Chekhov, Not So Straight-Up
At once streamlined and languid, Alternative Theatre Machine’s 3 Sisters Lounge moves Chekhov’s study in stasis from a house in provincial Russia to a modern-day New York nightspot, trading samovars and telegrams for cocktails and cell phones. The sisters remain inertly unhappy—Olga facing spinsterhood at 28, Masha falling in futile, extramarital love, Irina longing for Moscow—but brother Andrei is now a club DJ spinning ambient and techno.
Director John Issendorf has gently updated the old Constance Garnett translation, but a more extensive overhaul might have better served the conceit. What possible appeal, for instance, does contemporary Moscow hold for Irina (Paula Ehrenberg)? Are the characters all homesick émigrés? Why is there a garrison in New York? Text and context are a mismatch, and the setting might as well be the moon. The postmodern bells and whistles occasionally delight (there’s a cheekily captioned “Obligatory Avant-Garde Dance Number”), but the directorial tricks essentially suggest that what was audacious in 1901 has become moribund, the playwright’s impulses verging on cliché.
Most of the actors nail a moment or two—Becca Greene’s Masha and Steve Sherling’s Vershinin are especially nice slow-dancing to, of all things, “Holding Back the Years.” But the haphazard staging eludes focus; worse, the words get buried in the nonstop clubland sound design. The exception is Tom Bartos, who inhabits the doomed Tuzenbakh with such offhand charisma and crisp, wry diction that it’s inconceivable that Irina would be unhappy with him, as she asserts. Bartos shapes musty musings into real talk, making every line live; if only the rest of the cast could follow suit. As it stands, or reclines, 3 Sisters Lounge is a Pyrrhic victory, conveying ennui a little too well. —Ed Park
Gettin’ Their Freaks On
Sideshows are usually seen less as the respite of the forlorn and romantic than the stage for the macabre. But they’ve led poet Julia Bolus to write about what happens when the audience leaves the fairground. In The Circus of Infinite Attractions (Metropolitan Playhouse), the Actors Stock Company stages her poetry, to reveal a world of tender relationships in a setting often stigmatized for its more grotesque attributes.
Today, circus folk often appear as subjects on tabloid TV, exposed for national gawking. Thankfully, fears of callous sensationalism subside once the lights dim on Circus, and the members of an early-20th-century traveling show unveil their rambling laments. Set in a tented ring and using wistful monologues, slow-motion dance, and sepia-toned slide projections, the play introduces the audience to the circus’s endearing, friendly freaks. Iris, a gentle giant of a bearded woman (Jane Titus), nurtures sweet Nina, the trapeze girl (Naomi Barr). David the Lion Tamer (Nicholas Coleman) exchanges words of passion with soulful illusionist Eno (Richard Simon). Rosemary the cook (Abena Koomson) lords over Jorge, a self-loathing Gypsy fire-eater (Jeremy Schwartz), while Joey the overromantic clown (Simon) waxes rhapsodic about his crushes on the midway. At night, this unlikely family passes time by communing with the mystic forces that move them, whether rapt in wonderment at the tales of Clear Eyes the native man (Schwartz), or the signs shown by ethereal fortune teller Isabel (Susan Willerman). Through Bolus’s spare, elegant prose, we see the gentle humanism in these “attractions,” at home in possibly the only world that allows them to be understood.
Director Keith Oncale’s production is as humble as Bolus’s shy prose. Most of the actors assume double roles, keeping each character distinct. The stilted calliope soundtrack to the screen-projected slides and the actors’ frequent slow-motion movements brush a charming coat of clumsiness onto this bittersweet performance piece. —José Germosén
What a relief. The playwrights displaying their talents at the Estrogenius 2001 “celebration of women’s work” are far better writers than whoever coined the festival’s unfortunate title. And the surprises don’t stop there. The five one-acts in Program One at Manhattan Theatre Source take on old sexist constructs and poise them at witty, off-kilter angles.
Satiric in different styles are Sandra Dempsey’s Barbie Und Ken and Elizabeth Anderson’s Scatterhead. The first shows us real-life Barbie and Ken dolls, with a doll-baby for whom they’ll provide all Mattel’s best. Deborah LaCoy and Daryl Boling walk hysterically as wooden dolls—and Barbie, well, she’s not as pure as an anatomically incorrect doll should be. In Scatterhead, which suggests both Our Town and The Twilight Zone, the mysteriously vanished housewife Edna is not what she seemed—and her lorn husband struggles with the befuddling language of laundry.
More subtly amusing, Daphne R. Hull’s The Contents of Your Suitcase places two strangers—Wren (Margaret Dodge), a free spirit, and Colette (Julia Ryan), a married businesswoman—on a park bench in Paris. Wren’s suggestive questions almost drive the frightened Colette away. Instead, she successfully—and believably—seduces her.
Kathleen Rowlands’s The Stroller also matches two women in the park: a “crazy lady” frantically clutching an empty baby carriage (Nicole Potter) and a tomboyish urchin (Liz Morton) who taunts her—two first-rate performances. But the piece overexplains what it at first wonderfully hints at. Finally, in Kimberly Orton’s Raven, Eleni Beja does a comic yet plaintive turn as an eating-disorder patient who claims she ate her mother as a child.
Yes, women’s themes. But whatever the estrogen levels of these writers, their acuity with language and character makes them artists to watch. —Francine Russo
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