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.”