NEW YORK — Passions smolder and ignite, lovers lock themselves in intense embraces, a character screams into her pillow, soul-stirring sobs erupt from an anguished woman. Could this really be Chekhov, the visionary whose characters are often defined by stasis, repressed longing, and quiet suffering? As envisioned by visionary director Lev Dodin and his venerable Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, those furious bursts of passion, joy, and rage stand in stark contrast to the usual view of Chekhov’s work as devoid of action and rife with morose characters living unfulfilled lives.
Indeed, Dodin and the Maly Drama Theater want to overturn the cliches about the doom and gloom, the discontent and paralysis, that can overwhelm some productions of Chekhov. The aim is to boil the characters’ subterranean emotions to the surface, until they burst through the cracks like geysers.
Maly’s staging of “Uncle Vanya,” seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010, portrayed the title character not as the usual sad, weak-willed figure but as a surprisingly spirited, emotionally unrestrained man. In its production of “The Cherry Orchard,” which just wrapped up a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, self-made rich guy Lopakhin belts out a defiant rendition of the Sinatra anthem “My Way” that transforms into a desperate soliloquy of useless redemption.
And in Maly’s production of “Three Sisters,” which ArtsEmerson is presenting at the Cutler Majestic Theatre beginning March 2, the youngest sister Irina is played not as a proper girl repulsed by the advances of the boorish Soleni. Instead, she slaps him across the face, then they feverishly lock lips (a departure from the original text). She also ostentatiously flirts with the boyish soldiers Fedotik and Rode. Meanwhile, Olga and her sister’s husband Kuligin share a frisky yet fleeting embrace. Irina’s cry of “To Moscow” that punctuates the close of the second act is delivered as an anguished cri de coeur, while Masha unleashes a soul-shattering outburst after her married lover Vershinin departs forever.
“My choice to do it like this was because our everyday life is not a passive existence without actions. It’s full of passion. It’s full of struggle,” says Dodin, speaking through translator Dina Dodina, Maly’s artistic coordinator, inside a Brooklyn hotel where he and his cast have taken up residence during their run at BAM. “When I say passions, I mean ideological, intellectual, sexual, and social. This is the life Chekhov described, and this is the same life we’re living today.”
Those departures from the original text may disturb purists, but Dodin feels that he is true to Chekhov’s intentions. “Too often the readers believe the words of the characters way too much, not remembering that in real life we do not always tell the truth about our feelings.”
In “Three Sisters,” which is performed by the Maly company in Russian with English subtitles, the titular Prosorov siblings are exiled in a drab provincial burg in the Russian countryside, yet ache to return to their vibrant hometown of Moscow, where they spent an idealized youth. There’s Olga, the lonely schoolteacher; bored, impetuous married sister Masha, who embarks on an affair with the married soldier ; and the idealistic Irina, a charming romantic who becomes hardened over the years by the drudgery of her office job and the realization that the family will not be able to return to their beloved Moscow.
Their brother, Andrey, who yearns for life as a scholar, ends up marrying the manipulative Natasha, who relishes lording over her sisters-in-law. Revolving around these characters are servants, friends, lovers, and soldiers stationed nearby.
“In ‘Three Sisters’ all the characters are maximalists. They don’t want just a little bit of happiness. They want absolute happiness now please,” Dodin says. “This is why they’re always unhappy with what they have. But we all live hoping to achieve something that to others seems obviously an illusion.”
With his white hair and beard and avuncular demeanor, Dodin scoffs at the idea that nothing of consequence happens in Chekhov’s dramas. On the contrary, he says, the plays are brimming with life. “People so often say, ‘The characters are meek and gentle and do nothing. They just chatter away and don’t take any action in their lives,’ ” Dodin notes. “But in reality, Chekhov’s plays are populated with characters who act endlessly. They do things all the time to try and change things that seem inevitable in their lives. For me, Chekhov’s characters are the great warriors who are opposing the tragic laws of life. Often these warriors lose, but they keep struggling until the very end.”
Elizaveta Boyarskaya, who portrays Irina in the Maly production, says she’d always wanted to play the impassioned Masha instead, feeling that Irina was too reserved and would not be thrilling enough to hold her interest. But with Dodin’s help, she came to realize that Irina is the most tragic character in “Three Sisters.”
“I wanted her to be more sudden, more passionate, more serious, and somehow more alive than the dozens of Irinas walking the world’s stages,” she says. “I wanted the audience to see that Irina is actively struggling against the current, but she is powerless to overcome it.”
The characters’ feeling of powerlessness is underscored by Alexander Borovsky’s haunting set design, which features the wooden facade of what looks like an abandoned or burned-out house hovering at the back of the stage. As the play progresses and the sisters’ dream of going back to Moscow fades into an illusion, the house, with dark empty windows, ominously creeps forward. It pushes the characters to the edge of the stage, confined in this oppressive world from which they long to escape.
“The play speaks to each of us about the desperation that is life,” Boyarskaya says. “We always hope for the bright future to arrive and open our doors. We always think, you know, behind the next turn, there’s a different life.”
Play by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lev Dodin. Production by Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre, March 2-6. Tickets: $25-$85, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg