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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: July 11, 2017

It’s Chekhov, not Shakespeare, at Deering Oaks this summer

Written by: Bob Keyes
Casey Turner, Reba Short and Hannah Daly as sisters Masha, Olga and Irina. Photo by Craig Robinson

Casey Turner, Reba Short and Hannah Daly as sisters Masha, Olga and Irina.
Photo by Craig Robinson

Good, bad or otherwise, a reputation is a hard thing to shake. Beginning Thursday, Fenix Theatre Company will attempt to shake its reputation for producing Shakespearean comedies when it begins its run of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s classic drama “Three Sisters” at Deering Oaks in Portland. The Portland-based theater company presents the show for free, with performances Thursday to Saturday through Aug. 5.

“We’re interested in expanding what we do,” said the company’s artistic director, Rob Cameron. “A lot of folks think you can only do comedies in the summer, but we would burn out quickly if we only do comedies.”

This isn’t the first time Fenix has deviated from Shakespeare. It presented Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in 2011.

“Three Sisters” presents a different kind of test for Fenix. Set in the early 20th century before the Russian Revolution, the play tells the story of three sisters who live in a small town and are frustrated by their narrow lives and their inability to find love or change their circumstances.

Chekhov is considered one of theater’s great playwrights, and “Three Sisters” is among a handful of classics he produced.

It’s a difficult play for actors and audiences because of its nuanced language, moodiness and its reliance on subtext, which implies much of the action in the play. Presenting it outdoors in a public setting, with the distractions of city life, will challenge the ensemble, said Cameron, who is acting in the show.

“We will compete with helicopters, ice cream trucks and police sirens,” he said. “As an actor, you have to be fighting for your life. When you think you are shouting, you’re probably not.”

It’s risky doing a show like this outdoors, especially considering the come-and-go nature of the audience. But that risk has little consequence. The show is free. If people don’t like it or don’t get it, they can walk away.

Director Tess Van Horn is telling the cast to find the humanity in the characters and to highlight the universal aspects of their lives. She doesn’t want them to over-think Chekhov and his reputation.

“Chekhov can be so beautifully subtle, but I think there is a pearl within this challenge. Oftentimes Chekhov is treated as precious and high-brow, and it can lose a lot of the humanity and humility of all of these characters. We are finding the comedy, slapstick and celebration that is such a big part of ‘Three Sisters,’ and it’s been so much fun,” she said. “I’m hoping that the audience can connect and identify with these characters. Chekhov was profound and so ahead of his time, and so often throughout this process we have stopped and just been amazed at how much of a pioneer Chekhov was. ‘Three Sisters’ is a play for our time.”

Fenix is using a contemporary translation by Stephan Simek, a theater professor at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. Cameron called the translation “very visceral. It’s down and dirty, colloquial and immediate.” Van Horn agreed: “This translation is light, funny, relatable and smart. It feels very modern while still keeping the original essence of the story.”

Cameron saw a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” three years ago at the Theater Project in Brunswick. He considered himself a fan of the playwright, but that production changed his perspective. “That was a life-changing moment, when I really listened to Chekhov for the first time,” he said. He remembers thinking, “That guy is talking about our lives, the meaning of our lives and the hopelessness of our lives.”

Fenix Theatre Company’s “Three Sisters”

WHERE: Band shell at Deering Oaks Park, Portland
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, through Aug. 5; the play will be staged at Congress Square Park at 7 p.m. July 29


This article was updated at 5 p.m. on July 24 to correct the dates of the show.

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