It’s Chekhov like you’ve never seen him before — muddled, chaotic and filled with musical numbers.
Last Friday, Shotgun Players kicked off their 2019 season with “KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!” — a work of devised theater directed by Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt and based off of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Chekhov’s play follows the lives of three aristocratic sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina Prozorova, who are forced to leave Moscow. The trio ends up stuck in a small rural town, trapped in tiresome jobs and loveless marriages. Forever dreaming of a return to the city, the sisters find some amusement in entertaining soldiers and teasing Natasha, the wife of their brother, Andrey.
As it were, this is merely the premise off of which “KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS!” was created, a sort of thematic diving board that invites the audience into much loftier discussions. As a devised piece, it substitutes a concrete sense of plot and setting for loosely connected sequences that explore the characters of the original play. Intriguingly enough, the only roles that are actually portrayed in this work are Natasha (Amanda Farbstein), the three sisters and two military men, Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony (Nathaniel Andalis) and Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin (Billy Raphael) — leaving behind more plot-relevant characters such as Andrey and Baron Tuzenbach, Irina’s eventual fiance.
As it happens, this turns out to be a wise decision. Not only does whittling the cast down to six make for a more in-depth character study, but it specifically lets the women in the play dominate the stage while the two men seem to wander in orbit around them. “Orbiting” is an apt word here, as it soon becomes apparent that movement and physical space are some of the most important modes of expression in the play.
The play’s set is evidence enough of this — five chairs positioned in different directions, a few window panes on one side and a host of musical instruments on the other. Despite its simplicity, this setup is home to a great deal of movement. Each character seems attached to the chair that they are given. To move anybody, as Natasha finds out, you must first move their chair. It’s a subtle and poignant symbol for the theme of restraint that runs so heavily throughout “Three Sisters,” one made even more complex by the fact that only Natasha, the commoner and outsider, is denied a chair. Instead, she is forced to spend much of her time scuttling around window panes and hiding behind doors.
Masha (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), on the other hand, is eager and yet unable to break out of her confines, having grown bored with her marriage to Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin, a high school Latin teacher. At the opening of the play, when each character introduces themselves with a form of monologue, Masha’s stands out. While her sisters (Gabby Battista, Sam Jackson) perform traditional, spoken monologues from their chairs, Masha presents herself through a dance, silent and strong save for the occasional muttering of “God dammit!” As she bounded to-and-fro from her chair to the front of the stage, Stuart’s movements conveyed power, as well as a desire for more, that could not be contained by the dreary life of her character.
Stuart was not the only skilled dancer in the cast, of course. During the lively party sequence — which would have been a dinner party in Chekhov’s play, but became a comedic variety show in “KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS!” — Battista shines as Irina, who entertains the audience with pirouettes, splits and, most notably, tying a cherry stem with her tongue. In fact, each member of the cast has a well of talents to show off, from operatic singing to beat poetry to the variety of instruments that were passed around during the production.
This is ultimately one of the unique strengths of devised theater. It allows actors to show their skills in unconventional ways and to interact with an audience as boldly as they dare. And with a cast as talented as this one, that’s an experience worth seeing.
‘KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!’ will be running at Shotgun Players in Berkeley through April 21.