In June 2009, six MFA Actors from UT banded together under the name Secondhand Theatre to write and direct an original interactive theatre piece based on Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. The piece focused on scenes and characters not previously explored, and was largely successful. The members worked in pairs to write their scenes, and collaborated for the opening and closing events. 
 

See the original write up here: Rooms, a re-imagining of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Secondhand Theatre at Uptown Modern, June 7, 14 and 21
For additional production photos, click here


 
 Rooms was an unexpected opportunity to inhabit Chekhov's The Three Sisters for a short time on Sunday evenings in June. The announcement -- more of an invitation, really -- was to visit the Prozorov family at their estate, between Acts II and III of The Three Sisters.

Perhaps this piece originated as exercises for the MFA program at the University of Texas. We have seen each of these six vibrant actors elsewhere in town, both in UT productions and elsewhere, including at the Zach Scott and Hyde Park theatres.

You may have had the advantage of seeing St. Ed's production last fall at the Mary Moody Northern Theatre or you may know the play directly. The three sisters of the title are stranded at their provincial estate, yearning to return to Moscow, where they were raised. That hope is diminishing, for their father the General died a year earlier. Their only entertainment is socializing with the gallant men of the artillery regiment stationed for some indefinite time in the town.

Much happens in Chekhov's play, but Rooms takes only the first half as a given.

A crib-sheet: At the end of Act Two of The Three Sisters, the assertive intruder Natasha has married into the family and is steadily usurping authority and property. Lovely Irina is wilting in her job at the telegraph office. In Rooms we do not see Olga, who has become a schoolmistress. Black-clad mournful Masha remains married to a dimly pedantic local schoolmaster but yearns for the company of the very affable Lt. Col Vershinin. Vershinin adores his evenings
with Masha at the Prozorovs' estate, but he has a neurotic wife, as well as two daughters whom he adores. Among the visiting officers is the impulsive, slightly deranged Solyony, given to malicious remarks and unpredictable pranks.

 

 
 
 
Austin visitors to this world did not face the usual low-rent grime of Austin theatres. The venue was the shop Uptown Modern on Burnet Road, with an inviting collection of furniture, clothing and knickknacks that could have been an extension of Birth of the Cool, the Blanton Museum's recent celebration of that mid-twentieth-century American aesthetic.


In return for our donation we received a playing card, red or black, that served to divide visitors into two groups.  While waiting, we were free to roam among Uptown Modern's extensive display rooms and courtyard.

We visitors had roles to play in the courtyard scenes that opened and closed the action. These were gentle assignments requiring no lines. The decisive, crimson-garbed Natasha (Lesley Gurule) appeared at a porch railing, welcomed us with her handsome smile, apologized for the absence of her husband Andrey Prozorov ("He is always locked up with his books!") and said that unfortunately, she would be departing for a time. (Already in Act Two it is evident that Natasha has a flirtation, perhaps an affair, going on with Protopopov, a local official).
 
 
 
 
Moody Masha (Kate DeBuys), always dressed in black, said as little as possible to us.
 
 
 
 
The youngest sister Irina (Marlane Barnes) did the necessary courtesies, requesting that we make sure she does not find herself alone with staff captain Solyony.
 
Unannounced, the theatre convention changes. Three key scenes occur. We cluster in our designated smaller groups around two-character interactions, but now we are invisible to them.
Those of us holding clubs or spades saw, first, Lt. Col. Vershinin (Tom Truss) arriving in the boudoir of his wife (Melissa Recalde) in response to her note threatening to poison herself. (This meeting occurs offstage
during Act Two of The Three Sisters and Chekhov tells us almost nothing of it.)

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A shift of scenes is signaled by music, and our group moves to the garden to find Irina on a bench, alone and falling asleep.
In Act Two Solyany the eccentric captain had found her alone and declared his love, to her consternation. Here Smaranda Ciceu as the asocial, intent Solyany finds her once more and continues his intrusive, menacing courtship.
 
 
 
In the third of these fly-on-the-wall scenes we find Masha collapsed in a lounge chair holding a book, just as scarlet sister-in-law Natasha returns, full of life, from her troika drive with Protopopov. After an initially snappish exchange,
Masha speaks in fragmentary, ambiguous terms of her desire for Vershinin. Natasha gives her counsel that is direct, encouraging and, characteristically, without scruple.
Reunited once again in the garden, we attend Irina's birthday party. The family and the genial Lt. Col. Vershinin serve plates of cupcakes from the nearby Hey Cupcake! shop. Some of us have the privilege of presenting gift-wrapped boxes to Irina. The brittle gaiety is interrupted -- first by an astounding stunt by Captain Solyany and subsequently by a violent incident off stage.

I recount the action with less than my usual reticence, both because this piece probably won't be repeated and because I found the MFA candidates' approach so creative and refreshing. They were entirely faithful to the first two acts of the original, but then they served up a plausible alternate story not congruent to the second half of Chekhov's beloved play.

Each actor was so vividly convincing in these vignettes that one regrets that they are not appearing in a full version of the original. The appearance of Vershinin's wife
(for the first time ever?) amplified the original. And the retro-twentieth-century setting suggested itself as perfectly appropriate for a story that is really beyond place or time.

I was reminded of Vershinin's speculation in Act I.  "I often think: what if one were to begin life over again, but consciously?  If one life, which has already been lived, were only a rough draft, so to say, and the other the final copy!  Then each of us, I think, would try above everything not to repeat himself, at least he would create a different setting for his life. . . ."

No program was distributed and I saw no credits for writing, directing, or stage management. So in keeping with etiquette and good manners, which change little across place or time, I inscribe a note both to the characters and to the actors:

 

To

The Misses Prozorov & Mme Natalya Prozorov

S/c Uptown Modern, 5453 Burnet Road

Austin, Texas

United States of America

 

Please accept my thanks for your delightful hospitality on the evening of Sunday, June 21, and the expression of my admiration of each of you.

In a world of constant change, you, Secondhand Theatre, and Uptown Modern provided your twenty visitors a much valued and enchanting moment away from everyday cares and concerns.

Sincerest congratulations, once again, to our darling Mlle Irina Sergeyevna upon the occasion of her birthday, so aptly celebrated with cup-cakes in the garden.

With anticipation of future equally brilliant occasions chez vous,

 

Sincerely,

 

Michael A. Meigs, FSO (ret.)

Proprietor, AustinLiveTheatre.com