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THEATRE REVIEW: WTF’s ‘Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow’ — Chekhov it ain’t

This work is certainly never dull. However it never provides a new idea or thought ... nor does it leave us feeling that we have experienced a new work, but only a second-rate version of something we have known for eons.

Editor’s Note: In response to the outrage expressed by many readers to Peter Bergman’s opening sentence in his review of Halley Feiffer’s play, we asked the reviewer to revise his opening paragraph. He also sent the following explanation:

To the public:

“The opening sentence of my review of Halley Feiffer’s play “Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow” was not intended to offend sensibilities and sensitivities. It was, in fact, a partial quote from other people’s writing about the use of existing material to create a radically different edition of the original work without bringing forth new ideas, concepts or setting new directions for the characters. I do apologize for the sentence. I myself, as a child, was a victim of sexual assault; as a boy it was not considered by authorities in 1956 to be actual rape, although it was and I am sensitive to that issue. So, I have drafted a new opening sentence for the review. Thank you for your understanding.”

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Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow
By Halley Feiffer
Based on “The Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Trip Cullman

“Do you think I would have been happy?”

Gene Jones as Ferapont and Thomas Sadoski as Andrey. Photo: Daniel Rader
Gene Jones as Ferapont and Thomas Sadoski as Andrey. Photo: Daniel Rader

When an author takes another author’s work and makes it her own, there should be something authentic and special about the result. Playwright Halley Feiffer has done the first part but has not made it to that finale with her new play, a WORLD PREMIERE commissioned by and being produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow.” The classic being dragged through the food mill is Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” A play filled with Russian despair and inspired humor, Chekhov’s original does it all, says it all. Feiffer’s new play based on this work repeats everything Chekhov said, only in a coarser, commoner, less theatrical and more contemporary manner. She has added to that original only a millenial sensibility in the language but she has not managed to illuminate any of the characters beyond, or with greater depth, the originals.

The three girls still long to return to Moscow but none of them makes the trip. Masha still longs for a fulfilling love; Irina still longs for something to fulfill her lack of purpose; Olga still longs to be as beautiful as her sisters. Nothing has changed. This commissioned play from the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s New Play Commissioning Program turns out to be a weak translation of a theatrical classic and little more. If there is anything new, it is the production style of director Trip Cullman. That is something to see, even though it is as trapped in the original script’s concept as the translation is also.

Micah Stock as Tuzenbach and Tavi Gevinson. Photo: Daniel Rader
Micah Stock as Tuzenbach and Tavi Gevinson. Photo: Daniel Rader

Perhaps we laugh a little bit more at the psychotic ramblings of Olga’s ranting about herself. Rebecca Henderson does such a beautiful job of telling us how hideously unattractive she is over and over again. She can be loving and supportive as well, but she is never as convincing as when she is self-deprecating.

Perhaps we laugh a little bit harder when Masha upends the best part of her life to mourn the loss of Moscow in her life. Cristin Milioti is delicious in this role that affords her a handsome, devoted husband, lovers and admirers. She flaunts her best qualities, exhibits her worst and, in her black-hatted costume, resembles the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz,” although her witch is self-centered and vain.

We certainly laugh at Irina, the beautiful baby of the group, when she complains about everything and mourns about having to marry into the aristocracy. Tavi Gevinson does all of that and more with gusto, verve and vigor. She is so physically into the role that nothing on the stage remains sacred and possible.

Thomas Sadoski plays their hopeless brother, Andrey. Hopelessly in love, he cannot see the tree for the forest that surrounds it. Not unlike Matt, his character on the TV series “Life in Pieces,” he primps and postures and finds himself lost in the compulsions of sex. His own despair takes years to accumulate and finally resonate.

Jeanine Serralles as Natasha and Glenn Davis as Solyony. Photo: Daniel Rader
Jeanine Serralles as Natasha and Glenn Davis as Solyony. Photo: Daniel Rader

It is Andrey’s favorite whore, Natasha, whom he marries and who, in turn, domesticates this man, who runs away with the new play (actually, she often does that in the original version, too). Jeanine Serralles is wonderful as Natasha, wearing the oddest Mondrian-based dress from an era not to appear for more than 50 years after the period of the play. She moves swiftly from sexual plaything to controlling virago and each appearance by Serralles upsets the tentatively balanced apple cart.

The men in this play are, as usual, ineffectual. They are drunk; they are complainers; they cannot manage to keep their women’s interest. They are not always funny in Feiffer’s play, but they are hard to take seriously at times. The sharp outlines provided by Chekhov are slightly blurred in Feiffer’s reconstruction, not nearly as clean and identifiable as the five women–I include the servant, Anfisa, played in a wig that shows age placed over real hair which sends up that image, played by Ako. She is both the most pathetic female creature on the stage and the funniest at the same time.

Sheaun McKinney as Vershinin and Cristin Milioti. Photo: Daniel Rader
Sheaun McKinney as Vershinin and Cristin Milioti. Photo: Daniel Rader

The closest we are allowed to a romantic hero is Vershinin, in love with Masha who loves him back in spite of her marriage. Sheaun McKinney plays the role with great sense of purpose, good strength and conviction. A married man himself, Vershinin pursues Masha like Romeo takes after Juliet. There is no innocence in their relationship, nor is lust the motivator here. Instead it is the calling of each to be enveloped in the warmth of the other.

Irina’s lover, Tuzenbach, played with a genuine depth by Micah Stock, is the best character in spite of the assertion that he may be homosexual. The two of them are ardent and beautiful together, with Stock sometimes dominating in that image of beauty.

The confusion of costume style and periods, that odd thrust of millennial involvement, is provided by designer Paloma Young. Ben Stanton’s lighting does exactly what is should do, providing a sense of place, time and purpose. Mark Wendland’s innovative set works to the advantage of this odd play. The director, Trip Cullman, has woven a spell of sorts with this work. It is certainly never dull. However it never provides a new idea or thought, a new concept of any sort, a spontaneous feeling, nor does it leave us feeling that we have experienced a new work, but only a second-rate version of something we have known for eons. Feiffer’s play is still 117 years old. It just sounds a bit Midwestern instead of Russian.

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Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow plays on the Nikos Stage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Aug. 6. For tickets and information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 458-3253 or go online to wtfestival.org.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.