Cross-continent, multilingual hybrid adaptation of Chekhov a valiant effort but flawed in execution.
Ideally, collaborations between arts companies should produce work that take the very best of each company’s style and elevate the final production to new heights. It is especially exciting to see cross-border collaborations, where the contrasts in artistic philosophy and culture may lead to surprising results.
But collaborations are by no means easy, made that much harder when done in the midst of a pandemic, as in the case of SITI Company (New York) and Singapore’s Nine Years Theatre (NYT), both established theatremakers in their own home cities, and their production of Three Sisters.
Presented as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Three Sisters comprises actors from both companies performing Chekhov’s classic, under NYT artistic director Nelson Chia’s lead. With COVID-19 however, expensive flights, quarantine measures, along with other administrative and safety issues led both companies to make the difficult decision not to fly over the American cast, choosing instead to feature their parts as projections on the set in lieu of a live appearance.
Chekhov’s play is then reframed as a memory-scape of Irina (Mia Chee), the youngest sister, as she looks back on her family’s tangled fate while she and her sisters dream of returning to Moscow, and everything else collapses around them. In true NYT style, director Nelson Chia’s minimalistic set is plain, comprising primarily of white walls to feature projections, allowing audience members to focus all their attention on the actors and their performance onstage.
A lighted sign stating ‘3 Sisters’ is perched above, mirrored such that it symbolises us looking out from Irina’s perspective, while there are no windows, almost as if we are trapped in her head. The audience is at one with her memories as we hear voices echo in Russian and the sound of a clock ticking, reminding her of the time spent in the provincial town, as year after year passed by without her and her sisters returning to Moscow.
A hooded figure enters, and begins to slowly move around the table in the middle, deliberate as she sets it, and arranges each chair delicately. This figure is perhaps an older Irina looking back on the past, each chair reminding her of the people who once sat there, and the stories about them she keeps in her head. She places a golden clock on the table and embraces it, again reminding us of all her memories lost to the past, before Mia Chee, as the younger Irina, arrives onstage, and the cast begin to sing her an eerie, slowed version of Happy Birthday.
The performance that follows shows off Nelson’s mastery over directing his onstage actors – all of NYT’s cast members are fully in character, and committed to pushing their energy levels up for the live audience. As our central character, Mia Chee captures our attention in every scene she’s in, where she moves with a lightness and restlessness that encapsulates Irina’s youth and idealism. When she speaks, there is an innocence and charming naiveté in her tone that makes us want to believe in her dreams of love and Moscow. As much as there are times she is literally speaking to a screen, she does everything in her power to make that interaction feel organic and real, as if there was a real person standing in front of her.
The rest of the NYT cast also impress. Wendi Wee Hian shines as Natasha, bringing an odious egocentrism to the role. Her haughty tone and whiny, bratty attitude immediately gets on our nerves, and automatically turns her into the antagonist of the play (helped by her constant costume changes into increasingly expensive-looking clothes, as if she is selfishly spending the family’s fortunes on herself.) Timothy Wan, as her husband and counterpart, takes us through the tragic fall of youngest sibling Andrei, evoking sympathy in the audience with his performance, desperation in his voice as he constantly tries to convince us that he is happy in his position despite being in debt. And Hang Qian Chou, as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander, stands tall and confident, feeling like a dashing hero to save the sisters from their predicament when he is first introduced, but soon enough, reveals his own flood of troubles, becoming a pitiful figure as he shoulders the burden of his hysterical, suicidal wife.
On SITI’s side however, the cast feel reserved and stoic, and Three Sisters shows how difficult it is to create an effective hybrid performance that makes good use of live and digital elements. With each actor having performed remotely, in their own individual space, their characters feel detached and distanced from the events onstage, and unable to generate the chemistry required in their interactions with NYT’s actors. As such, there is a huge disparity between what is presented onstage and via projection, one that was not resolved through the way the play was presented.
While Three Sisters has a straightforward narrative, what makes Chekhov’s play so rich is the subtle nuances, details and tonality that reveals the hidden undercurrents between characters, something lacking in this production. Take for instance Akiko Aizawa, as middle sister Masha, whose entire character arc revolves around her stale relationship with her husband and her resulting affair with Alexander. On a screen, interacting with another screen, we do not sense the boredom Masha feels towards her husband, with the delivery of her lines feeling either one note or misdirected. It is likely difficult for Akiko to get a grip on her character, particularly if these performances were pre-recorded in isolation, where she has no fellow actor in the same room to bounce her emotions off of.
Certainly, in this production, there are moments that do work to contribute towards the surreal, dreamy memory-scape described, such as the onscreen American cast falling into a laughing, drunken stupor in an idyllic yard, or a forest of green springing up as Irina bids farewell to the Baron fading out of existence. Both these scenes are projected across the walls, and make it seem as if the onstage characters are being consumed and surrounded by these memories and images, allowing these projections to evoke surprise in the audience thanks to how visually different they are from the otherwise blank walls.
Three Sisters is a long play, but there are moments of levity amidst the doom and gloom, be it the simple joy of Irina’s birthday party, or even a Skype conversation with an unstable internet connection that allow audiences to take emotional breaks between the heavy subject matter. SITI and NYT have also done their best to overcome the many restrictions and challenges thrown at them during this pandemic, from onstage social distancing to the need to wear masks when performing (NYT actors donned translucent masks such that their mouths were still visible).
It is when Three Sisters uses its hybrid form to evoke emotions that it is most effective, something that is seen most strongly in the final scenes. Towards the end, a visual of migrating birds helps illustrate Olga’s musings on how their town will soon be empty, as everyone moves on with their lives. A projection of a tranquil forest juxtaposed against the sadness of goodbyes provides an inexplicable sense of loss, as the three sisters, at long last, return to Moscow, even as the townspeople will soon forget their faces. They are hopeful for the future, yet nostalgic for all that they’ve lost, bringing it full circle to the beginning of the play, where these memories have faded into the past, leaving the set blank as it is.
But as a whole, these moments are rare within the production, and for the most part, feels like a shadow of what it could have been, given that the most emotional exchanges between characters are never fully-realised, due to the challenge of using different mediums. There have been so many obstacles in the making of this production, and it is a valiant choice to press on and present this collaboration even within the restrictions. It’s just that the resulting execution was ultimately an underwhelming one.
Photo Credit: Nine Years Theatre and The Pond Photography
Three Sisters runs from 20th to 22nd May 2021 at the Drama Centre Theatre as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. It will also be available as video-on-demand from 5th to 12th June. Tickets and more information available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here