A Chekhovian Hells-a-Poppin

By Geary Danihy

Think of Chekhov as rewritten by Kafka and directed by the Marx Brothers. That will give you some idea of the tone and tenor of The Square Root of 3 Sisters, part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas currently playing at the Iseman Theater in New Haven through Saturday, June 25.

The basis for the play, written and directed by Dmitry Krymov, is, of course, Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, but there’s more than a touch of The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya thrown in for good measure, most of it played for laughs as Chekhov’s various themes are turned and twisted to fit the moment.

The mood is set before the curtain as the actors rush about setting the stage, which consists of nothing more than plywood sheets placed on the floor and cardboard boxes (the box designating the cherry orchard has “For Sale” stenciled on it), plus toilet paper and paper towels unrolled from the balcony to designate white birches.

The play itself really doesn’t unfold, it takes staggering steps as scenes are interrupted, lights come up and down, an unseen stage manager makes various comments and commands in a stentorian voice, various props are introduced, including a railroad which is built of ladders and stretches high up into house left with audience members supporting the “tracks.” A teapot slides back and forth across a table of its own volition and costumes have labels sewn into their necks that provide brief character descriptions. Trains, huffing and puffing steam, arrive and depart and, yes, alas, the three sisters are finally dispossessed, all of their worldly goods carted off, including a horse.

There are moments of slapstick and other moments of cerebral comedy, including jabs at Method acting a la Stanislavsky and Chekhovian angst. One of the finest and funniest extended moments is when Shaunette Renee Wilson, playing Olga, uses forks, spoons and saucers to create an “I don’t need love” rant.

There’s also an extended sequence when the cast dances with audience members to a waltz written by the actor, Anthony Hopkins, and another when Melanie Field, playing Irina, breaks out into “Someone to Watch Over Me,” supported by the cast playing various instruments including, I do believe, a kazoo.

Roles are not secure. Annelise Lawson is fired as Masha and replaced by Annie Hagg, who’s not sure of her lines so tries to stay on book; Niall Powderly gets the hook as Vershinin and is replaced by Kevin Hourigan, who is so excited at the opportunity that he gleefully races around the audience. Aubie Merrylees plays Trigorin -- the only problem is, he’s in the wrong play -- while Julian Elijah Martinez gets to destroy the scenery (such as it is) as the overly passionate Solyony and Bradley James Tejeda takes on a rather confused Tuzenbach (such confusion is understandable, since he is half-German, half-Russian).

Do you have to be up on your Chekhov to enjoy this exercise in controlled insanity? Well, it wouldn’t hurt, but if you can’t tell a seagull from a cherry orchard you will still enjoy this two-hour, intermission-less romp. It’s staged with style, flair and just a touch of wild abandon, a bit of magic (thanks to puppet designer Matt Acheson), some impressive lighting work by Elizabeth Mak, and obvious delight by all involved.

For tickets or more information go to the Festival’s web site: http://www.artidea.org/

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