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Chekhov's drama of everyday life

The Evergreen State College stages Three Sisters

Marla Elliott directs Josh Oliver (left) and Diego Lacamara. Photo credit: Christian Carvajal

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"I love Chekhov because he's one of the greatest playwrights ever, and his work is really great for training actors," said Marla Elliott, a faculty member specializing in drama at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. "He creates stories and plays in which there are no villains and no heroes, and in which emotional complexity and emotional empathy rule the day."

Elliott is co-directing Anton Chekhov's 1901 classic, Three Sisters, in The Evergreen State College's first fully staged production in three years. Her partner for this endeavor is Tom Rainey, a faculty member in Russian history at the college.

"It's not only telling about Russia," Rainey said of Chekhov and of the play, "but about the human condition. ... He's the genius of everyday life. These are everyday occurrences in which your life is falling apart and your future is bleak. There's so much in it that transcends the Russian, about how we all deal with love and anger and jealousy. This one in particular is about aspirations that we might have, what we will do ... that's not realized."

The play's titular sisters are the Prozorovas, all in their 20s. From oldest to youngest, they're Olga (Sarah Fernandez), the maternal high school teacher; Masha (Lucy Turchin), the pianist and disillusioned bride; and Irina (Emily Greenhalgh), the innocent who's just reached her name day (a European tradition similar to a birthday). Together they reckon with such quotidian catastrophes as a fire, an extramarital affair and a deadly duel. When the play debuted at the Moscow Art Theatre, with acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski directing himself in the role of Vershinin, the reaction was mixed. Nevertheless, Three Sisters entered the modern canon alongside Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Elliott and Rainey co-directed The Cherry Orchard in 2015.

Stanislavski is undoubtedly the most famous theatrical theorist of the 20th century, yet it became apparent decades later that his plan for an acting "system" had been mistranslated into English. "Americans had a really distorted idea of what Stanislavski was trying to do," explained Elliott, "because of the lack of communication during the Soviet era (and) lack of access to Stanislavski's written works ... Distortions came through the Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg, starting in the 1950s."

From 1974 on, those misunderstandings were challenged by scholarly translator Jean Benedetti. Thanks to an evening and weekend studies program at the college, the cast of Evergreen's production of Three Sisters is using Benedetti's work to realize a translation adapted by playwright Sarah Ruhl.

"(Chekhov) doesn't tie it up at the end," mused Rainey. "He usually gives a ray of hope, but there's an existential box that comes from realizing that in the past there was a decision you made that you thought wasn't going to be important, but it turned out to be the most important thing you've ever done -- or the most missed opportunity."

Three Sisters, 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Friday, March 15-16; and 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 17, The Evergreen State College Experimental Theater, 2700 Evergreen Pkwy. NE, Olympia, free, 360.867.6000

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