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An existential 'Sisters' act

Chekhov classic takes a page from Beckett at the ART

CAMBRIDGE -- Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett, together again at the American Repertory Theatre.

Picking up where ''Uncle Vanya" left off two seasons ago, the ART's production of ''Three Sisters" takes the characters out of their roots in realism and moves them into a bleak house where there is little to do but confront the void.

The simple plot certainly allows for such an intriguing staging: Three sisters live out their dreary lives in a provincial Russian town, longing to get to Moscow, where they're certain they can find meaning and joy. As they are obviously never going to get there, the parallels with ''Waiting for Godot" are striking. To echo a famous review of ''Godot," nothing happens twice here, too (one intermission divides the more than 3 1/2-hour production).

Polish director Krystian Lupa's ultra-modernist adaptation accounts for the production's magnificent first-half highs as well as its sagging second act. Lupa, working in America for the first time, creates a sense of despair and existential angst that embraces Beckett and even recalls Jean-Paul Sartre's ''No Exit," which happens to be next up at the ART.

For the first half, at least, the ennui is exhilarating because Lupa's stagecraft is extraordinary. Most of the action takes place in a sprawling living room with a couple of divans, a piano, and peeling paint on the wall. In a back room separated by a scrim is a large banquet table and a stairway. Olga and Irina Prozorov live there with their brother, servant, and sister-in-law, but also rent out rooms and otherwise play host to the military men in town. The third sister, Masha, lives nearby with her ineffectual husband.

Lupa not only directed, but designed the set and serves as live drummer through Tuesday. The drumbeats give the play a pulse, underscoring actions and breaking silences -- and the many silences are indeed golden.

The drumming and other production devices are constant reminders that while the play seems to be naturalistic, there are metaphorical and metaphysical undercurrents everywhere. A thin red neon strip around the stage reframes the room in a way that makes us look at the characters differently. The always meticulous work of lighting designer Scott Zielinski and sound designer David Remedios adds nuances to the action.

The director has also provided his own take on the late Paul Schmidt's already conversational and deromanticized translation of ''Three Sisters." The contemporary style of speech and action suggests a breadth of motivation that spans the century since the play was written. The characters may be stuck in a rut, but they're not stuck in late 19th-century Russia, as they are in so many stilted productions of Chekhov.

There's nothing stilted about this one. Kelly McAndrew overdoes Olga's Americanized accent, but Sarah Grace Wilson and Molly Ward make Irina and Masha a pair of women who would be at home in ''Desperate Housewives" as well as ''Three Sisters."

Speaking of which, Lupa does not shy away from the sexual gropings that many of the characters engage in to forget how empty their lives are. This, too, provides some flesh and blood that's not always present in Chekhov productions, as does a great punk-rock dance.

As the first half ends, with Irina alone and afraid, there is the sense that Lupa has masterfully made his point: Chekhov is the father of all things existential, and his characters are soul mates of Sartre's and Beckett's in confronting the inessentiality and absurdity of their lives. The supporting actors, from Tony-winning Frank Wood to ART regulars Thomas Derrah and Will LeBow, get completely under the skin of their characters.

But all of that contributes to making the second half anticlimactic. If not redundant. If not unnecessary. Lupa, in interviews, has said that Chekhov's Acts 3 and 4 represent a turn away from realism toward ''a spiritual transformation that leads to liberation and happiness."

If only he had translated that to the stage. Instead, there's an even greater sense of stagnation and hopelessness. As Derrah's character, Chebutykin, incessantly sings about sitting on a tomb, the other characters watch their dreams dissipate. Gone, too, are any sense of Chekhov's humanism or satire of the bourgeoisie, which would have leavened some of the desperation.

Even at that, Lupa still completely justifies the ART's faith in his vision. The intelligence and rigor that he brings to every scene slow things down. But without ever being showy, each scene leaves the audience with a ''Three Sisters" to be savored.

For all the problems in the second half, I'd rush back to see anything Lupa directs.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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