Sifa 2021: Chekhov's crossover took 'more planning than Broadway'

SINGAPORE - A modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters will see Singapore's Nine Years Theatre and New York's Siti Company "come together" on stage, even as the actors remain socially distanced and all of 15,000km apart.

When the production premieres at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in May, actors from Singapore will perform onstage at the National Library's Drama Centre Theatre while those from America will appear as cinematic projections on the walls of the set - a white room that is also the memory-scape of one of the sisters.

"We've conceived the entire world of the play as Irina's dream or memory," says Nine Years Theatre's co-founder Nelson Chia, who is directing the play and had originally wanted both groups to be physically present together.

"It happened quite magically. We never expected or wanted to do something like this. But dramaturgically, it makes sense: Irina seems to be the one with the most hope at the beginning, compared with her oldest and second sisters. We also think of dreaming and memory as a kind of play-making. Memory is not always reliable, but it can be imaginative."

The titular three sisters are Olga (Ellen Lauren), Masha (Akiko Aizawa) and Irina (Mia Chee), who live in a small town in Russia and long to return to Moscow, where they grew up. The play charts their relationships, frustrations and their search for meaning in life.

Three Sisters, one of Chekhov's best-known plays, premiered in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theatre.

The Sifa production runs at the Drama Centre Theatre from May 20 to 22, and crosses borders in several ways - with actors from two countries appearing physically as well as virtually, and speaking to one another in English and Mandarin.

It is based on an English version by United States playwright Sarah Ruhl, which Siti member Darron West adapted for this hybrid production. Some parts were also translated into Mandarin by Nine Years Theatre member Neo Hai Bin, who plays army captain Solyony.

Three Sisters is a milestone in the groups' long relationship.

Chia, 48, first saw Siti's production of Death and the Ploughman at the 2006 Singapore Arts Festival.

When he started Nine Years Theatre with his wife Mia Chee six years later, they incorporated Siti's Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints practice into their company's training regimen. All of Nine Years' ensemble actors have trained with Siti Company at different points in their careers.

Siti's co-artistic director Anne Bogart, 69, who founded the company with Tadashi Suzuki in 1992, says the collaboration has been "a long time in the making".

"It's more innovative than we'd ever imagined. I think it will break some new ground in terms of what hybrid theatre could be."

Working together remotely may be magical and innovative, but it also comes with a slew of challenges - time zone differences, interrupting each other on Zoom and complicated logistics.

Video director and sound designer West, 54, a Tony Award-winner, says: "This show, for me, has involved more planning than the largest Broadway production I've ever worked on."

He adds that the US actors are currently being filmed in upstate New York.

"We've got it all set up with lights and background screens. We will start one actor at a time, plod our way through it, put the whole show together, send it to Mia and Nelson in Singapore and we'll make a play together."

"One thing I do know about the piece is that it's musically not confined to any one period. We might have a waltz to a really beautiful Russian song one minute, and a scoring that sounds like (English rock band) Radiohead the next. I'm not putting the play, aurally, in a box, quite yet."

Performing live with filmed actors will take the Nine Years actors into uncharted territory.

"Is it more painful or less to say 'I love you' or 'Goodbye' to your loved one through a screen?" Chia wonders.

Chee, 42, who is also the show's producer, says Three Sisters was an apt choice because it is an ensemble piece - and Nine Years Theatre and Siti Company are both known for their ensemble acting.

The play's emotional and geographical isolation resonates in these pandemic times.

Bogart adds: "The sisters constantly say, 'To Moscow, to Moscow'. "That human desire to go somewhere that's accessible feels really familiar right now.

"Our 'Moscow' is to be together. We are almost together, but we are not. There's a quality of irony in the piece that feels relevant to this moment."