Written in 1900 and first performed in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theater, Three Sisters (Russian: Три сeстры́) was considered one of Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov’s more notable plays, along with The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Brazilian author, theater director and filmmaker Christiane Jatahy has taken Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and transformed it into an amazing multi-media play/film that is viewed simultaneously by two audiences in two separate theaters. Placing a label on this work was difficult. Was it a play or a movie? Or was it a politically based performance art piece. The answer is yes! Jatahy described it as a “mirror game between theater and cinema” and critics have called it “a new dramaturgical language.” Whatever title one wishes to put upon this work, it was brilliant!
WHAT IF THEY WENT TO MOSCOW? had its US premiere this Thursday, February 21, 2019 at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in downtown Los Angeles. A second theater had to be built in what is primarily REDCAT’s gallery space for audiences to view the film version of Jatahy’s production. That is where I began the four-hour (with a 45-minute intermission) emotional rollercoaster experience and the night I went, both theaters were sold out.
Jatahy’s work has been praised as some of Brazil’s best. She is noted for adapting classic plays like The Three Sisters and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie into this new genre of film/theater. She did not just break down the boundaries between film and theater, past and present, actor and character, reality and fiction as stated in the press release; Jatahy shattered those boundaries, causing the audience to question if what they were witnessing was two events or four. The play’s fourth wall was breached by audience members becoming guests at the youngest sister Irina’s 20th birthday party. The actors doubled as crew members and slipped (on purpose) in and out of “character”, shifting from speaking Portuguese to English, and singing in French. They moved in and out of past and present, fact and fiction, actor and character with an ease akin to changing hats.
The film version of WHAT IF THEY WENT TO MOSCOW? was exactly that, the movie of a stage play. The set resembled the interior of a house, and when the characters spoke to party guests, it felt authentic, as if they were friends of the family attending a party. We saw them dance and speak with the sisters Olga, Maria and Irina. We watched as Olga served refreshments to her guests and watched as everyone moved from room to room and saw Maria and Olga as they lay in a pool of water.
Like the play, the plot of the film version focused on the complicated, co-dependent relationship of the sisters whose father had died on Irina’s birthday the year before. Olga was the eldest, Maria the middle sister and the only one married, and Irina was the youngest. The title for Jatahy’s film/play came from Irina’s desire to travel from their home in Brazil to Moscow.
When one saw the play, however, what was viewed in the movie was both familiar and extraordinarily altered. We saw the sets moved around between scenes, Olga served refreshments to the audience and spoke to them as if they were also in Brazil. One wonderful example of this was when she asked a man in the audience where he was from. His answer was “From here!” Her response: “You are from Brazil and you don’t speak Portuguese?” This produced laughter, but it also caused a collision of realities. Were we in the play or in the audience? Were we in Los Angeles or Rio and was it the present or the past?
What appeared as a familiar movie format, became a mixture of the making of the film, the performance of a play and the interaction between actors and audience. The sibling rivalries took on a more political tone during discussions between the two groups. The fascists taking over Brazil’s government became a parallel to what is transpiring within the US government. Again, the discussion moved between past and present, play and reality. The conclusion produced the question, “What can we do to change? To really change”?
WHAT IF THEY WENT TO MOSCOW? must be experienced, not just read about. One must be in the swirl of realities to comprehend the true nature of what Jatahy has created. At one point I recalled a childhood experience of wandering through a house of mirrors at the state fair. Which refection would truly provide the correct way into the next room or a door to the escape out the madness?
The standing ovation from both audiences that went on for several minutes spoke to the fact that WHAT IF THEY WENT TO MOSCOW? was an astonishing experience! The acting was extraordinary, and the set (by Marcelo Lipiani) and film work were beautifully elastic.
The incredible actors included Isabel Teixeira as Olga, Stella Rabello as Maria, and Julia Bernat as Irina. Paulo Camacho (Aleksandr) was also the producer of photography, direction and live camera action and Felipe Norkus (Andrei) provided the live percussion music. Collaboration on the script was by Teixeira, Rabello, Bernat, and Camacho. Kudos also to the entire stage crew who succeeded in weaving together this maze of realities.
What If They Went To Moscow? continues through Sunday, February 24, 2019. For information and tickets, click here.
For more information on Christiane Jatahy, click here.
Featured image: Stella Rabello (Maria) and Isabel Teixeira (Olga) in Christiane Jatahy’s “What If They Went To Moscow?” – Photo by Vanessa Crocini