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Friday, January 6, 2017, 09:05

Chekhov through a new lens

By Chitralekha Basu
 Chekhov through a new lens
The Hong Kong Three Sisters production is part of Alice Theatre Laboratory’s attempts to explore minimalism in art.

An experimental new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, which also brings present-day Hong Kong under the spotlight, opens tonight. Chitralekha Basu had a preview.

In Hong Kong, where audiences of live performances seem to love the exaggerated and the spectacular, the Alice Theatre Laboratory (ATL) team is moving in the opposite direction. They are more keen on the lean and the spare. ATL's latest production, The Hong Kong Three Sisters (THKTS), which opens tonight, is one in a series of theater projects where the idea is to pare down the extras and get to the core. ATL's Theatrical Minimalism Exploration Project entails doing away with props, period costumes, even huge chunks of the source text if necessary and sticking to the bare essentials.

Such experiments are not confined to ATL's staged productions such as the recently seen Hamletmachine. Their no-frills approach extends to the informal showcasing of some of Samuel Beckett's plays with little action and fewer words (Catastrophe, Footfalls, Not I) in the company's bare rehearsal space in an industrial building near Diamond Hill. They have also hosted seminars on minimalism in Robert Bresson's films, Robert Wilson's experimental theater and Steve Reich's music, and a comparative reading of the plays of Cao Yu and William Shakespeare - a program they took to some of Hong Kong's secondary schools.

Chekhov through a new lens
The Hong Kong Three Sisters production is part of Alice Theatre Laboratory’s attempts to explore minimalism in art.

In THKTS, their newest, Anton Chekhov's well-known 1900 play The Three Sisters has been fast-forwarded and interpolated with new material. The play, as director Andrew Chan reiterates, "grew organically", through two and a half months of meticulous reading and interpreting Chekhov, as well as the works of minimalists such as the American short story writer Raymond Carver. With a nod to Louis Malle's film Vanya on 42nd Street - in which actors rehearse Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in an abandoned auditorium on New York's 42nd Street, bringing to it a slice of their non-actor persona as well - Chan too has envisioned THKTS as a play that's forever in rehearsal and could never be quite finished. And while he swears by the 20th-century modernists such as Beckett and Carver - known for the experimental, sometimes confounding, nature of their work - as the masters informing his directorial sensibilities, Chan, however, says he took the cue for halting the Chekhovian play and inserting tales of life in present-day Hong Kong from Chekhov himself.

"In Chekhov's plays often there are no finite endings at all," says Chan. "They end abruptly, leaving the audience at a point where they would still wish to know more about what became of the characters. It's a bit like what the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini had said: There's no end. There is no beginning. There is only the passion of life."

 Chekhov through a new lens
The Hong Kong Three Sisters production is part of Alice Theatre Laboratory’s attempts to explore minimalism in art.

Fast-forwarding a four-act play

Phoebe Fung is finding it quite a challenge to snap in and out of the range of emotions she is supposed to portray. As it is she plays a deeply conflicted character - that of the intensely passionate middle sister Masha who falls for the much older Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. Now that the four-act play has been compressed into a much leaner, tighter and more stylized version of itself, Fung seems to have her work cut out for her. Like the rest of the cast members she too plays a double role - a character in Chekhov's original play and that of the actor rehearsing the part. In her actor persona, Fung plays a realty developer's agent, Sue, who unwittingly ends up deceiving her clients. She is haunted by surreal nightmares of Hong Kong going under the hammer as state heads of powerful nations home in to make their bids.

"Sue can identify with Masha," says Fung. "Like her she too does not quite know what her goal in life is."

Shades of the sexual tension between the characters in Chekhov's play resurface in the relationship between the actors, a technique resonating with repetitive musical movements, found, sometimes, in compositions by minimalists like Philip Glass, another favorite of director Chan's. For example, Kwong (played by Chau Ka-fai), the director of the play-within-the-play, as well as the actor essaying the character of Masha's lover Vershinin, is shown to be a well-grounded man, trying to help the somewhat impulsive and overly moralistic Sue to make sensible life and career choices.

Natasha, who is married to Andrei, the only brother of the three sisters, is probably the most unsympathetic character in Chekhov's play. Then she is also the one who evolves the most. From a shy, unsophisticated fianc to Andrei, mocked by the sisters, Natasha comes into her own, emerging as the mistress of the house who usually has the last word.

Chekhov through a new lens
The Hong Kong Three Sisters production is part of Alice Theatre Laboratory’s attempts to explore minimalism in art.

Yuen Wai-ying, who plays the character, says Natasha, to her, is like the new immigrant. In her other role as Hilda - an actor with a day job as a medical lecturer - she urges her students to be more pro-active and hang in there against the face of the apparent adversities, much like the way Natasha does in Chekhov's play.

Looking beyond Stanislavski

Putting a play within a play is a trope ideal for conducting a bit of soul-searching on the part of the people involved in the production - a chance to tell the audience about the directorial vision informing the show. Expectedly, Chan and his band of actors exploit the opportunity to get into a round of on-stage dialectics. The director of the play within the play is seen trying to make a case for interpreting Chekhov using tools and techniques befitting the present times rather than following the time-tested realistic method acting championed by Konstantin Stanislavski (who, incidentally, played Vershinin in the first 1901 production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters).

At the end of the day, however, ATL would like their newest play to resonate with the city's young people, some of whom do not seem to be too happy in their present circumstances. While there are grave tragedies in Chekhov's original play, there is also a desire to get over loss, adversity and misfortune and start over. Taking her cue from the eldest sister Olga, a teacher, Chan Shui-yu, who plays the role, says she would like to urge the show's audiences to stop wallowing in nostalgia, have a more informed sense of the present and do what's necessary to make Hong Kong a better place.

"It's important to live in hope," she adds.

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