Alarming, unpredictable staging

Feiffer Adapts Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters’




In “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” at the MCC Theater, playwright Halley Feiffer has found her voice, and it sounds a lot like a cartoon, rife with social commentary. Her new work, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” brings to mind the theatrical sensibility at work in Taylor Mac’s “Gary: A Sequel.” His Broadway premiere last season is a takeoff on William Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”

To appreciate Feiffer’s theatricality and humor, it won’t be necessary to reread Chekhov. However, it would be a good idea to watch a boring classical drama, produced in traditional fashion. Evoking that ants-in-your-pants feeling is at the heart of Feiffer’s metatheater. This production gives us a sense of how the sisters feel, contained in a small town, however ironically, just an Uber ride away from Moscow. Yet, in spite of all their dreams, they can’t get there.

Blending heavy metal music, rap, and contemporary dialogue, such as Irina’s “smash the patriarchy” definitely gives a new slant to this work. As Treplev in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” says, “New forms we must have.” One wonders how the playwright would feel about this one.

With the help of an astonishing ensemble of actors, director Trip Cullman pulls off a theatrical coup. Capturing the fast-paced dialogue of people ranting, then dropping down into naturalistic conversations feels jilting. But then, so does the simulated anal sex scene at the living room piano.

There are lots of surprises being hurled at us here: Irina’s birthday party/picnic with pink paper plates, Solyony’s affectionate dueling with Baron Tuzenbach using a bottle of spray cologne, and Natasha’s breast pump which she nakedly bears, looks like an instrument from a sci-fi feature.

Observing these characters on the cliff of despair, we become immersed in their frenzy, as if we were on a roller coaster ride at a carnival. The circus metaphor is boldly employed here.

Without exception, the actors are standouts. As the oldest sister Olga, Rebecca Henderson is commanding in her unhappiness, delivering dialogue with such a droll and heavy hand that she looks wacked. With her classic retort, “Every night is the worst night of our lives,” she fulfills her sister-in-law Natasha’s expectations of a comic book villain.

In the role of Natasha, Andrei’s wife, Sas Goldberg is outrageous. Boundless in her contemptuous behavior toward her sisters-in-law, she flaunts whatever she can find to flaunt. Her imagination is wildly nefarious, a stand-out of balls-to-the-wall comedy.

The most despondent of the three sisters, Masha, is portrayed in gender-bending fashion by Chris Perfetti. When Masha dons a veil to cover her pain, she looks, and acts, like Olivia de Havilland in “My Cousin Rachel.” There is something a little shady about this pain of hers.

As Andrey, Greg Hildreth is a quintessential existential millennial with no interest in changing that. And Alfredo Narciso’s Vershinin, an icon of super dramatic acting, looks like he walked out of a Bollywood movie. In that regard, he’s kind of on his own here . . . a bit of an outsider.

No less alarming, Steven Boyer mines his ability to scare an audience, while remaining coolly aloof and contained within himself. Still, the most startling performance is Matthew Jeffers as Solyony. The way Jeffers, a little person, plays this quirky character is off the charts, and close to the bone.

Designer Mark Wendland’s boldly colored fresco of Moscow, framed with neon lights, reflects the action and mood of the ongoing life, with red lightbulbs flashing during the sex scene, and flames blazing through the backdrop for a fire — the one that destroys the sisters’ home. Paloma Young’s costumes are equally unpredictable, and definitely make for character statements.

No matter how often you’ve seen Chekhov’s play, you’ll be surprised by the ending.

Toni Stone

Soccer sheroes, the likes of Megan Rapinoe, are a loudly assertive presence. They’re defiant and unafraid to make demands. In their pursuit of gender equality and equal pay, they’ve definitely got balls.

In a different way, so did Toni Stone, the first African American woman in the Negro League. In the titular play by Lydia R. Diamond, currently at the Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre, Stone is portrayed for her struggles on the all-male baseball teams of her day.

Diamond’s gift for dialogue, capturing Toni’s down-home quality and the baseball players’ lingo, gives the show its rhythm, sting, and humor. Introducing herself at the opening of the play, Toni tells us, “I’m not a big talker. I talk a lot, but I don’t talk big. I have pride, but I wouldn’t say I’m proud. Don’t think I’m bragging when I tell you that I do the things I do well, bettern’ anybody.”

Reaching beyond the racism, sexism, and adversity with which she was faced, is the heart of this portrait. While Stone began playing semiprofessional baseball at the age of 15, the focus here is on her trajectory to the Indianapolis Clowns, where she replaced Hank Aaron.

As portrayed by April Matthis, Stone is a quirky character, and an ineffable force. Judged as being a slow learner in grade school, she delivers the stats on every baseball player, negotiates with management, and finesses her survival on the all-male team. Like her male teammates, Stone was not allowed to sleep in most hotels, and suffered the abuses of the Jim Crow laws that prevailed in many of the states where they played. As a woman, she also endured the bigotry and transgressions of her male colleagues.

In portraying Stone as a clown, mirroring the Chaplin-esque qualities of a tramp, Matthis is marvelous. She’s good-hearted, but cunning, with a sassy disrespect for authority. As the program notes explain, an Indianapolis Clowns game was accompanied by entertainment. Like the Harlem Globetrotters, their hallmark was physical comedy.

Demonstrating athleticism, the Clowns would incorporate bursts of imaginary baseball — exaggerating their physical moves, bungling, and bumbling with comedic timing. Structuring the play around their performance art, Diamond finesses a narrative that is multifaceted and fast-paced. At the same time, the historical context and insights are shocking, and often unsettling.

Deftly directed by Pam MacKinnon, Stone’s commentary attached to the action serves as something of a Greek chorus. Indeed, she was the ideal spectator of her own unique life. And she is portrayed admirably for juggling professional life, marriage, and her own inspired ideals.

Team spirit rules on this stage, with the players performing variety acts that are Vaudeville-like in spirit. Several actors, an ensemble of eight men, play the various characters. Most outstanding, Phillip James Brannon’s King Tut is effective in his disillusionment. And Kenn Head as Millie is a hoot in her baggy dresses. Head is transfixing, alternating between his role as baseball player and the prostitute who becomes Toni’s confidante.

Costumes by Dede Ayite consist primarily of baseball uniforms, with Stone throwing a man’s blazer over hers. Her life is played out on the wooden stage, a highly compact version of a baseball field, designed by Riccardo Hernandez.

It’s her reach that prevails. Matthis hits it out of the park.