You might think Bartlett Sher would be taking a breather right about now. The ambitious Seattle theater artist sure deserves one, after...
You might think Bartlett Sher would be taking a breather right about now.
The ambitious Seattle theater artist sure deserves one, after staging a new Broadway musical (“The Light in the Piazza”) this spring. And after getting caught up in all the 2005 Tony Awards hoopla: “Piazza,” which debuted here at Intiman Theatre, won six awards in Sunday’s Tony awards ceremony.
But though Sher has enjoyed “Piazza’s” success (“it’s been incredible, insane and delightful”), and earned his first Tony direction nomination for the show, he still has a Seattle playhouse to tend.
He’s the artistic director of Intiman Theatre. Lately that means he’s been holed up in rehearsal a lot with the cast of “The Three Sisters,” a classic Anton Chekhov play Intiman will present in a new adaptation by Craig Lucas.
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“It’s so totally humbling,” Sher commented over coffee last week. “You feel like you can conquer the world one minute, and the next you’re struggling with a text.”
There’s nothing like Chekhov to puncture a director’s ego, he agreed with a tired smile.
“You have to expose all the layers in the writing. It takes so much time to get to that, and we don’t have enough time. But there are moments in rehearsal when you feel Chekhov’s spirit — so beautiful, so insightful. There’s just no writer like him.”
“The Three Sisters” begins previews on Friday, opens June 15 and plays Tuesday-Sunday through July 9 at Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$46 (www.intiman.org or 206-269-1900).
This is the first time the 46-year-old Sher, lauded for his Shakespeare outings, has tackled Chekhov. And he’s well aware the Russian author’s century-old scripts have flummoxed many American directors, with their subtle shadings of humor and poignancy.
“I’ve always wanted to direct Chekhov, but told myself I needed to be older because the experiences of his characters are hard to get inside of when you’re young,” Sher noted.
He chose “Three Sisters” to begin his Chekhov journey, because “I respond to it so much. It’s partly kind of a Red State/Blue State thing. Here are these three women originally from Moscow, feeling strangled and smothered by the provincial life they’re leading — and superior to it for all the wrong reasons.
“They’re like certain spoiled Americans. And they’re a dying breed, pampered but unaware how the world is changing around them.”
Written in 1901, “Three Sisters,” like all Chekhov’s dramatically innovative scripts, is famously light on action. And the three sisters of the title are far from dynamic protagonists. These provincial siblings are chronically unfulfilled — disappointed in love, frustrated by their work, hopeful and pessimistic in spurts.
As Chekhov mused, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
How to capture the rhythms and textures of that daily life in old Russia, without sagging into melancholy — or straining for laughs?
“You have to let this human experience unfold,” suggests Sher. “Chekhov’s people complain of boredom, but what’s boredom? It’s really restlessness, uncertainty, not knowing what to do.
“I’m steering away from tedium and melancholy. This household is actually full of activity, events, joys, bitter rivalries. It’s not just people laying around all day sighing, ‘Oh, God, we’ll never get to Moscow.’ “
As for the humor entwined in “Three Women” (Chekhov considered all his plays comic), Sher has found “appallingly hilarious” moments which “are fundamentally comic and tragic.”
“The audience needs to see how sad and horrible it is, when people have these awkward communications with one another, and don’t realize how they’re botching things up. They can be unintentionally, ridiculously funny and stupid, like all of us.”
Working with the new English-language version of “Three Sisters” by Lucas (the Intiman’s associate artistic director, and the author of the libretto for “Piazza”), Sher is guiding a cast of Seattle and imported actors.
The youngest sister, the schoolteacher Irina, is played by recent University of Washington acting grad Alexandra Tavares. New York performer Julie Dretzin plays Irina’s frustrated older sister Masha, and her actor husband, Sam Catlin, appears as Irina’s earnest suitor, Tusenbakh.
For the self-sacrificing eldest sister Olga, Lucas enlisted Broadway musical theater performer Judy Kuhn (star of 5th Avenue’s “My Fair Lady” a few years ago.)
“I love giving these great musical theater people a chance to do new things,” said Sher. “They have so many skills to draw on.”
The ensemble also includes New York actor Jay Goede (who appeared in Lucas’ “Singing Forest” at Intiman), and Seattle talents Kristin Flanders, Michael Winters and Jack Clay. Tony-winning costumer Martin Pakledinaz (who also dressed Seattle Opera’s current “Ring” cycle) designed the show’s period costumes.
After “Three Sisters” opens June 15, will Sher get that much-needed break? Though rumor has it that “Piazza” may tour, and possibly have a London staging, Sher says he looks forward to some reading and pondering time in Seattle this summer.
And though his Broadway stock is soaring, Sher has signed on for another three years at the helm of Intiman. “I still need a home for my work, and a place to come home to, and that’s Seattle,” he said. “And I really need to rest, resuscitate and think about where Intiman is going over the next two or three years.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com