Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble has never played by anyone else’s rules. In the group’s first production, 2013’s stark and disquieting adaptation of Richard III, actors slid tables at each other like torpedoes and wielded umbrellas like guns. Last fall’s Song of the Dodo featured preening performers dressed as the titular bird, lots of animalistic wailing, and—in one of the grossest and most enthralling things I’ve seen on stage—Rebecca Lingafelter biting down on a raw egg and chasing it with a glass of red wine.
From the time you enter the theater for this production of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, there’s no worry PETE has abandoned its rule book. The show has the company’s visceral, iconoclastic stamp all over it, from the inventive staging, to the tension between stillness and motion, to the powerful (and sometimes overpowering) vocals. It’s a story of ennui and desperation about three sisters and a hapless brother in 19th-century Russia, but this production is immediate and alive.
The studio theater of Reed College’s year-old performing arts building—a space that would make many professional companies envious—has been appointed as a provincial Russian drawing room: glass decanters of vodka, botanical drawings, a jigsaw of patterned rugs, multiple ticking clocks reminding us of the excruciatingly prosaic passage of time. Bright turquoise scrims serve as the walls, like aqua-colored glasses through which Chekhov’s despairing characters see the world outside their country home.
Audience members take seats throughout the parlor. For the first few minutes, actors move about the space, touching up the room and—without words—beginning to establish relationships. Oldest sister Olga (Lingafelter) oversees the house with a gentle but firm hand; middle sister Masha (Cristi Miles) scowls; Irina (Amber Whitehall), the youngest, flits around like a child, oblivious to the hungry glares of Captain Solyony (Chris Murray). As the house fills with friends and soldiers to celebrate Irina’s 20th birthday, we’re not quite participants, but neither are we distant observers in a darkened space. The actors can see our faces. We can smell their hair pomade and see the dirt beneath their fingernails.
It’s almost disappointing when the words come, but they quickly prove nimble and poetic, even when the exchanges become, as Masha says, “pseudo-conversations”: talk about the future that’s as paralyzed and tedious and fickle as the characters themselves. This is a new translation by director Stepan Simek, chairman of the theater department at Lewis & Clark College, and it retains the crisp, somewhat haphazard poetry of Chekhov’s dialogue while rendering the language fresh—Masha, for example, describes their town as a “shithole.” (Some updates are more distracting, as when the aging doctor talks about “shtupping.” A convivial conga line set to “You Are My Sunshine” fares surprisingly better.)
The staging changes drastically for the production’s second half, when white scrims form the walls of a small bedroom and we sit outside. Is it a cocoon? A cage? Or is it just somewhat frustrating to watch actors’ faces as if through a mosquito net?
It would be easy for this to feel gimmicky, or for the performances to be drowned out by novelty. But Simek’s choices feel neither arbitrary nor heavy-handed, and the large ensemble cast mostly has the chops to make the show work. There are hiccups: PETE relies heavily on gesture in its work, but here the movements are sometimes too big or repetitive—arm flailing, overdramatic brow-furrowing. Some of the best moments embrace stillness, as when Irina, in her white dress and white fur cap, sits partially reclined on the dining room table, like a stranded polar mermaid. As Irina, Whitehall doesn’t create a wholly satisfying character arc, and the babyish affect to her voice grows wearisome. But Lingafelter and Miles, as the other sisters, give performances suffused with soul and pain.
For the final act, when we’re released from claustrophobia to an expansive, open space, it comes as palpable relief. The sisters, meanwhile, remain bound to their home, dreaming of an imagined wonderland—of Moscow—but unable to escape.
SEE IT: The Three Sisters is at Reed College Performing Arts Building, Southeast 28th Avenue and Botsford Drive, 555-1212. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays through Aug. 17. $15-$50.