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  • Evgeny Marchelli’s Key to Chekhov: Rejecting Chekhovianism in the Provinces
  • Jeffrey Stephens (bio)

Many is the director who searches in vain for the key to a successful staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. At the risk of entering the performance studies debate from the perspective of what Tracy Davis pejoratively labels the “opening night paradigm” (38) of theatre historiography, I assert that director Evgeny Marchelli’s stupefying production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, like Masha when Vershinin abandons her, cries out for commentary. A moving production of Three Sisters—one that is not what Eric Bentley calls a “triumph of euthanasia” (290)—is a rarity. I admit that I never saw Yuri Lyubimov’s production at the Taganka in 1981, considered to be one of the most important productions of Chekhov in a generation. Neither did I see Robert Sturua’s production featuring three Redgraves (Vanessa, Lynn, and Jemma) in 1991 in London, nor Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius’s production of the play as part of the Second Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow in 1996.1 Having seen many productions of the play in English translation and in the original Russian by such great Soviet directors as Georgi Tovstonogov, nothing could have prepared me for Evgeny Marchelli’s revelatory production at the Til’zit Theatre in Sovetsk, Russia. The production defied the unspoken “laws” of directing Chekhov by circumventing audience expectations, ignoring certain textual givens, and allowing the drama the sense of play and open-endedness it desperately needs to engage contemporary audiences. I am interested in a full accounting of this production so that those who are approaching Chekhov as directors, designers, or dramaturges might find inspiration to make his drama continue to breathe in our time.

Marchelli and the Til’zit

The Til’zit Theatre (Til’zit was the German name of today’s Sovetsk, Russia) is a stone’s throw from the Lithuanian border (fig. 1). You can almost see the lovely Queen Louise Bridge from the theatre’s front steps.2 The majestic Neman River serves as the barrier between Lithuania and what was East Prussia before the British bombed its capital, Konigsberg, in 1945. Decisions made at the Potsdam Conference led to its Soviet annexation by the end of World War II. Closed to Westerners until 1991, Sovetsk is completely separated from Russia proper by the Baltic Sea and by the EU countries, Lithuania and Poland. It is at times barren and forbidding and isolated. This sense of isolation supports the thematic foundation upon which Marchelli’s production of Three Sisters rests.3 The implications and consequences of a life in the provinces seem to motivate many of his design and directing choices.

The original Til’zit Theatre was built in 1893 and opened with a production of Goethe’s Egmont. Rebuilt on the same site in 1933 as the Til’zit Grenzland Theatre, it was closed during the war and its troupe dispersed. Today, the theatre holds about 250 people and is badly in need of refurbishing, with its cracked mortar, peeling paint, and fading rose-colored exterior. The interior foyer is dark and somewhat musty, with creaky floors and threadbare carpets. The theatre building sits by itself on the edge of a large tree-filled park. Inside, a low-hanging balcony that extends from both sides of the proscenium is oppressive on first sight, particularly for Three Sisters. Marchelli has extended the playing area over several rows of seats, thus making the stage floor, if it were tilted upward from upstage, resemble the top of a giant grand piano. [End Page 13]

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Fig. 1.

The Til’zit Theatre in Sovetsk, Russia. (Photograph by the author, 2007.)

The managing director of the theatre, Nina Lemesh, informed me that the theatre re-opened on the same site in November 1956 with a production of a play by Leonid Zorin, the popular post-Stalin Soviet writer.4 Led for several years by Alexander Brodetsky and for many more by Boris Kadakolavich, under whom the theatre developed a reputation for nurturing actors, a significant new direction began in 1989 when the theatre was given the official status of...


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