PORTLAND EXPERIMENTAL Theatre Ensemble (PETE)'s production of Three Sisters offers a rare treat: a brand-new translation of Chekhov, thanks to director Stepan Simek.
Simek strips the romance from established translations of the play to reflect Chekhov's plain and plaintive Russian, and to make the play natural and livable—inviting but not comforting. It pairs well with PETE's experimental approach and the open, fungible space of the Diver Studio Theatre at Reed College.
The titular sisters are, naturally, the focus of the play, and the youngest, Irina (Amber Whitehall), is their mascot—even before the first act begins, she's a beacon of optimism. Whitehall deftly avoids the common pitfalls of playing Irina as too childlike or sweet, delivering a complex portrait of hope shattered and expectations tempered.
Different kinds of hope are posited in the first act, only to be crushed by the last. Characters throughout "do the philosophy thing" (in the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, whose aging optimism is heartbreaking in Mike O'Connell's performance), but it is, as middle sister Masha (Cristi Miles) decries, "pseudo-conversation, just talk, talk talk."
Meanwhile, actors David Meyers and Chris Murray capture the absurd menace of the play's "humor" perfectly: Meyer plays rambling old Doctor Chebutykin, two years sober (you know what they say about a sober man in the first act of a Chekhov play), while Murray is the almost psychopathically aggressive Captain Solyony.
In the first two acts, the audience (capped at 35) sits in the parlor of the Prozorov house, amid much of the action. By act three, the space has been changed drastically; by steering the audience to the stage by a different route, reorientation is achieved. Moving the audience for the fourth act cements the feeling of immersion: You, seeing this play, have literally walked the same grounds as the characters.
These elements—a new translation, an excellent cast, and unique staging—present a vibrantly blooded, breathing portrait of House Prozorov and its three sisters. The production is so fully in its world, and so obviously respects its characters, that the actual plot seems incidental, by which I mean inevitable. It can't help but happen, and you can't help but watch.