Miami Theater Center is about to take a giant step into its future with a play first performed 111 years ago. But as with everything at MTC, 21st Century imagination will be wedded to theatrical tradition when the company opens its production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters on Saturday.
If you’ve never gone to the PlayGround Theatre in Miami Shores or haven’t driven down that stretch of Northeast Second Avenue lately, you might be wondering: What, exactly, is MTC? Based in the 1946 former movie house known as the Shores Theatre, MTC is a multifaceted organization that evolved from the family-oriented PlayGround, which artistic director Stephanie Ansin cofounded in 2005.
Three Sisters is the first major main stage MTCperformance offering for adults and older teens, with other productions scheduled through the season in the theater’s smaller SandBox space. MTCplayground will present two mainstage family theater productions, and the new MTCfilm run by O Cinema Miami Shores brings an ongoing series of movies, some aimed at contexualizing MTC’s live performances. MTCtraining offers classes for professionals, classes and camps for nonprofessionals and children. With all those activities, the not-for-profit MTC has become one bustling building, operating on a budget of just over $2.7 million for the current fiscal year.
Launching the rechristened MTC with Three Sisters accelerated the usual process Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla use when developing a production although most other theaters (particularly in South Florida) would envy the time — including two months of rehearsal — invested in their newest show.
“This is the fastest we’ve created a show,” says Ansin, the adaptation’s coauthor and director. “We wanted to do it to open the Miami Theater Center. So a year ago, I asked my sister-in-law [Tatsiana Yarashevich] to do a literal translation from the Russian original. We got that at the end of January.”
At first, Ansin and Calzadilla had considered staging various versions of Three Sisters, Chekhov’s masterpiece about restless sisters Olga, Masha and Irina, young women living in a provincial Russian town. They had a reading of Sarah Ruhl’s version last Thanksgiving, then read several others. Ultimately, they decided to create their own.
“We felt we needed to chew it up and regurgitate it our own way, knowing that every translation is an adaptation anyway,” Ansin says. “We read all those versions, looking for the essence.”
Calzadilla, who also designed the set, lighting and some of the costumes for the production, says their aim was to “… make it accessible, make it easy in the mouths of the actors and easily comprehensible for American audiences with no background in Chekhov.”
Adds Ansin: “And we wanted to do that without dumbing it down or relocating it to Hialeah.”
Three Sisters requires a cast of 14 (MTC also has two understudies) and some 150 costume pieces. Ansin and Calzadilla traveled to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, renting some of their costumes from past productions. Calzadilla fit the borrowed costumes to the MTC cast — all but two are South Florida actors — and designed the rest.
The innovative way MTC is presenting Three Sisters evolved for pragmatic reasons.
“At first, we were going to do this in the SandBox and use all the green space behind the theater,” Ansin says. “We knew we couldn’t fill all the mainstage theater seats for Chekhov.”
Now, both actors and the audience will occupy the main stage performance area, a move designed to make theatergoers feel part of the story unfolding at the Prozorov family estate. Rather than watching from MTC’s 330 traditional theater seats, the audience — only 49 per performance — sits onstage on a riser that gets turned twice to face the action of different scenes. A platform built out over those regular seats becomes an outdoor/garden playing area. Theatergoers will literally enter Chekhov’s world together, waiting in the lobby, then being escorted onto the stage a few minutes before the show begins.
The Ansin-Calzadilla Three Sisters is different in other ways as well. The original, commissioned by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, ran more than three hours; this one takes two, plus a 15-minute intermission. The chairs around the Prozorovs’ long dining table are mismatched thrift shop finds from different eras. The play incorporates movement choreographed by Octavio Campos, some original songs (music by Luciano Stazzone, lyrics by Ansin), and a deliberately anachronistic duet by Masha and her lover Vershinin on George and Ira Gershwin’s Embraceable You.
The point, says Ansin, is timelessness.
“We wanted to build a bridge between Russia in 1901 and Miami Shores in 2012,” she says.
In part, one of the reasons Ansin wanted to add classics and adult theater to the MTC mix was so that she could work with an expanded pool of actors, many of whom had never auditioned for PlayGround’s family productions; Three Sisters, she says, “ … is a rite of passage, a magnet for good actors.”
Emily Batsford, who plays Masha to Yevgeniya Kats’ Olga and Diana Garle’s Irina, appeared in the PlayGround production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Veteran South Florida actor Howard Elfman is making his first MTC appearance as Chebutykin, a military doctor and family friend. Both performers are aware of the differences in process on Three Sisters — and they’re appreciative.
“It’s incredible. I’ve never rehearsed this long, ever,” says Elfman. “They have a different process here, involving some physical training, some improvising. … Normally, you get 2 1/2 weeks of rehearsal. Some details don’t even register until the end of a show’s run.”
“Everything here is designed to create a company, a company that transcends one production,” Batsford says. “This is definitely a unique experience. I don’t think I’ll have another that matches the creativity of this one.”
Ansin and Calzadilla are hoping that new audiences will discover MTC and the breadth of its programming through Three Sisters, which will also get morning performances for high school juniors and seniors during its long run. They’re not planning another production aimed at adults until the spring of 2015 and aren’t sure yet what it will be — something by Shakespeare, maybe, or possibly a play like Tea and Sympathy.
Calzadilla says he and Ansin don’t see Three Sisters as pessimistic, despite the sorrows and disappointments that are part of Chekhov’s story. And he believes that the play has lessons for those on the 2012 side of the cultural bridge.
“What Chekhov wrote and what we interpreted is still very relevant,” he says. “It has to do with coping with reality as it comes, keeping on living. The sisters are a lesson in endurance.”