The cherry orchard must sit at stage right, tucked back into a corner. Across from it, Nina Zarechnaya can daydream on the damp grass beside a lake, where the moon flickers and she falls into bouts of deep thought. Moscow University will remain offstage. A birch grove will hang from the rafters; a hospital around center stage. A headstone, marked by brown bread and slowly-evaporating vodka, close to the audience. And the railroad must skirt the edges of town, hugging just one side of it like a locomotive bookend.
All parts of the dramas of nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, these mark the skeletal foundations on which the world premiere of The Square Root of Three Sisters, a dazzling mashup of Chekhov and his legacy, stands. A collaboration between the Dmitry Krymov Lab and the Yale School of Drama, the piece runs through Saturday night at the Iseman Theater on Chapel Street as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Like Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Square Root of Three Sisters is a nesting doll of a play, employing whimsy, terror, catharsis, and grief to explore the elaborate and confounding worlds Chekhov created in his masterpieces. When they are introduced to the audience, actors are playing themselves — sort of — in a self-conscious effort to ready the stage for the show, covering it in cardboard that will double as fertile Chekhovian ground. At least, New Haven’s version of it. Tape is put down over sections and secured as bodies move in sync with each other across the stage, covering what will become their dramatic laboratory for the night. No sooner is the set in one piece — so tested through striking movement by MFA alum Julian Elijah Martinez — than the scramble to champion the playwright’s legacy begins, and actors snap into motion.
It’s also then that the fourth wall starts to wobble and crack — perhaps in keeping with what the ensemble, comprising many veterans of the Yale Cabaret, does best. As a train barrels through the landscape and actors are surrounded by a cloud of chalk-scented fog, stunning lighting design by Elizabeth Mak and choreography kick into high gear, and the worlds between actor and character begin to blur.
Spoilers withheld — this is really, really a show worth seeing, for the creative risks it takes throughout, and fact that it sticks every single landing — in this play-within-a-play-withn-a-play, the meat and the marrow of Chekhov are laid bare on the table and eaten raw. Simultaneously themselves and not, actors delve into the narrative worlds of Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Ivanov, The Three Sisters, and others, willing victims to the playwright’s tempestuous webbing. Caught in the pages of those plays, their own frenetic minds, and a set that blends minimalism and magic, they revisit and make timeless Chekhov’s forays into the dark storms that brew between the heart and head.
As Olga/herself/company member, recent Yale grad Shaunette Renée Wilson delivers a heartrending monologue that renders Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova’s restlessness and heavy heart universal. A once-perfect Titania, Melanie Field (Irina/herself/company member) brings the company, and perhaps the audience, to its knees as she loses composure describing the lack of love in her life. As The Seagull’s manic Trigorin — or maybe he’s a Chekhovian protege, or maybe himself, or maybe an actor who is afraid of being tagged as insufficient — Aubie Merrylees soars. An intermittent voiceover is simultaneously Krymov, Chekhov, famed actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, and an absent director striving, impossibly, to get Chekhov right. That all of these, with the trappings of both Chekhov’s affecting world and the Krymov Lab’s, feel so organic yet so strange isn’t happenstance: Krymov wrote the script alongside the actors, and roles fit just so, like Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya’s dainty shoes.
But The Square Root Of Three Sisters is not just a smart quotation of Chekhov, or a series of inside jokes that can validate the most well-read of audience members. It’s also utterly contemporary and utterly its own, reading like a literary pendant to Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 Synecdoche, New York. A brain-bending meditation on the standards to which those in the theater world are held and to which they hold themselves, it comes with one warning: You won’t leave the theater thinking of love or of life (much less Chekhov, gravity, and the limits of theatrical collaboration) the same way. You aren’t supposed to.
The Square Root of Three Sisters runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. the Iseman Theater on 1156 Chapel St. For ticket information, visit the International Festival of Arts & Ideas’ website.