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Chekhov + Turgenev

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 19, 2022

The Cast of About Love
Photo by Russ Rowland
One of the last performances I attended before the theatres shut down in March 2020 was About Love, Will Pomerantz's adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's novella, First Love. The play, with half of its original cast intact, is currently running in repertory with a new adaptation, also by Pomerantz, of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters at the Sheen Center. The pairing, dubbed Chekhov + Turgenev, offers a rare opportunity to experience the works of two literary lions of Russian modernism in tandem.

Directed by Pomerantz with original music and lyrics by Nancy Harrow, About Love remains a lovely and engaging piece of story theatre. The play uses the first-person narrative of the 1860 novella, and the six-member company (most of them assuming several different characters) provide the exposition while dramatizing the events of the story.

The play takes place in the Russian countryside, where sixteen-year-old Peter (charmingly played with wide-eyed innocence by Manny Dunn) is spending his summer. He lives with his quarrelsome parents (convincingly acted by Tom Patterson and Jean Tafler, who take on several other roles), and in the cottage next door is a gone-to-seed princess (Pilar Witherspoon, suitably cloying) and her flirtatious and hedonist daughter Zina (Silvia Bond, who is more believable in her moments of vulnerability than sensuality). Peter instantly falls for the young woman, but he faces fierce competition among her suitors, who include a poet (Tafler), a count (Witherspoon), and an unctuous doctor (Nathan Hinton, who performs the part with appropriate oiliness).

As the summer proceeds, Zina and Peter become more intimate, but he suspects that she is involved with someone else. Revelations lead to heartbreak (naturally, since this is based on Russian source material, after all), and the play imparts a rumination on lost innocence.

There is a good deal of playfulness in Pomerantz's inventive staging, and Harrow's underscoring effectively captures the improvisatory spirit of the piece. Less successful, though, are the songs (most of which include words and music by Harrow, performed by an excellent group of musicians). Except when sung by Dunn, these are not well served by the cast. Even more problematic are some of the lyrics, which border on doggerel. Take, for instance, the lines from a song called "A Storm is Brewing": "Inside and out/ A storm is brewing/ The wind is picking up with flashes in the sky/ And so am I." Huh?

The disappointing musical numbers aside, About Love pairs nicely with Three Sisters. As a program note explains, Chekhov was either directly or indirectly inspired by Turgenev's masterwork A Month in the Country (although Chekhov publicly expressed some distaste for the play), which premiered about thirty years earlier. Turgenev's and Chekhov's canonical texts address similar issues and themes, such as class tensions, marital infidelities, and tragic disillusionment.

Elizabeth Ramos, Amanda Kristin Nichols, and Essence Brown in Three Sisters
Photo by Russ Rowland
Pomerantz's adaptation of Three Sisters is straightforward and efficient (eliminating three characters), but unfortunately it loses some of the lyricism. At the beginning of the play, the sisters, Olga (Elizabeth Ramos), Masha (Amanda Kristin Nichols), and Irina (Essence Brown), are comfortable in their well-appointed home. They enjoy the social attention of the soldiers, who visit them regularly, and look down on the fashion ineptitude of Natasha (Bond), the simpering fiancée of their studious brother Andrei (Miles G. Jackson). As the play proceeds, the sisters' smugness turns to anguish and desperation, and the social world they once knew has been completely overturned.

The ill-fated affair between Masha–who is married to Kulygin (Tommy Schrider)–and Vershinin (Nehal Joshi) is well delineated, as is the love triangle among Irina, Baron Tuzenbach (Patterson), and Solyony (Harrison Bryan). The other characters include the family's old friend and army doctor Chebutykin (John Ahlin) and the hard-of-hearing and underfoot former nurse Anfisa (Tafler).

Under Pomerantz's direction, the production moves rather swiftly, but this is often to the detriment of the devastating emotional effect the play generally proffers. The actors (three of whom appear in both plays), except for Brown as Irina, have not yet fully embodied these characters to reveal the accumulated layers of delusion, perfidy, and existential despair. Ideally, there will be more psychological discomfort for the audience as the actors become more comfortable in their roles.

Both productions benefit from the minimalist design elements by Brian Staton (scenic), Allen Hahn (lighting), Whitney Locher (costumes), and Sean Haggerty (sound). The set consists of several antique chairs that alternately convey disarray, elegance and obsoleteness. There are obligatory birch limbs, but here they are hanging precariously upside down against the back wall. Resembling a roast duck hanging in a Chinese restaurant, the birch trees signify a topsy-turvy social order.

At a time when all things Russian are associated with aggression and brutality, the marketing team cleverly bills the plays as "about love, not war." While one can only speculate on how the writers would feel about being linked together, artistically or, if one is to read too much into that plus-sign, romantically, Chekhov + Turgenev affords a novel perspective of two works by these singular writers.

Chekhov + Turgenev: Three Sisters/ About Love
Through June 5, 2022
The Frank Shiner Theatre at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St., New York City
Tickets online and current performance schedule: