Maly Drama’s staging, in Russian, of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, at BAM’s Harvey Theater, includes a pillow fight, a joke beard, a gargantuan fur hat, incorrigible whistling, and several stolen kisses. For all that, it is likely the bleakest show you will see all year. Director Lev Dodin offers a mischievous and lively production, but one that promises no hope for his characters once the lights fall. The several speeches meant to alleviate the ending’s despair (Vershinin’s vision of an improving world, Olga’s conviction of future generations’ gratitude) are delivered so flatly and summarily as to belie every word.
The play concerns three sisters—and their brother—trapped in a provincial backwater with only a raggedy soldiers’ brigade for company and the occasional romance. Chekhov wrote to a friend on the play’s completion, calling it an awkward work, with “a mood, as they say, gloomier than gloom itself…its mood, people say, is murderous.” Against this despair, Dodin plays up the drama’s farcical elements, making much of the subtext visible and material.
Dodin is not Ivo van Hove (no food fight here), but each sister finds herself in an unscripted clinch. Even Olga. Some of this counters Chekhov’s words and stage directions, baldly at times, yet the fun never contradicts the play’s pessimistic core. The lyrics to that bouncy sing-along? “I’m sitting on a stool/And I weep bitter tears/Because I mean so little.” These ditties and embraces shine a light against which the shadows stand out more strongly, effecting a tonal chiaroscuro, a distinctly Russian mix of smiles and tears.
I don’t know how long the troupe has rehearsed this play, but the characterizations feel remarkably full, as thoroughly worn in as the soldiers’ squeaky boots. Though the set and lighting don’t give away much about time and place, the actors’ faces and bodies tell you all you need know. Sometimes it’s hard to look away to read the English supertitles. These are an active, antic bunch of characters—few of them accept their fate passively, even as none seem able to alter or resist it. These sisters will never get to Moscow. But Chekhov fans can get to Brooklyn. And they should.