Chekhov’s three sisters have never been sadder or, frankly, more relatable than they are in Brazillian director Christiane Jatahy’s What if they went to Moscow?, a trans-media theatre-and-film piece in BAM’s 2019 Next Wave Festival. Jatahy’s production divides the audience in two, sending half to the BAM Fisher theatre and half to the BAM Rose cinema. Three cameras (representing the sisters in their own distinct ways) capture the live actors in the theatre as they perform a contemporary Portugese distillation of Chekhov’s Moscow-aching siblings and the images are cut, edited, scored, and transmitted in the moment to the cinema. At intermission, the whole thing resets and the audiences switch places and, in my case, buy a massive Diet Coke and a bag of popcorn. The communal togetherness of the theatre gives way to the individual anonymity of film and we watch Olga, Maria (as Masha is known in this adaptation), and Irina through this different angle. Jatahy utilizes the two mediums as more than a structural device. She knows the strengths of both and connects them to the material in a way that pays off spectacularly when the two halves are completed.
In the theatre half, the sisters sit on a couch right in front of us and Irina (Julia Bernat) calmly announces the actual date, time, and location and says they are exploring the desire for change. The titular sisters have always longed to leave their provincial town and go to the big city. They’ve always desired change, but they haven’t always been so frank about it. They haven’t been so forthright or analytical about their intentions.
Jatahy then gives us a glimpse of Irina’s 19th birthday party – the one where their father died – before seamlessly sending us a year into the future to her 20th – the one we are all attending. Olga (an astounding Isabel Teixeira) speaks to us warmly, welcoming us into the house and giving us fresh-squeezed orange juice, champagne (“without alcohol”), and slices of cake. She works overtime to ensure everyone at the party is having fun and is quick to shut down any gloominess from Irina and, especially, Maria (Stella Rabello).
The adaptation excises almost all of Chekhov’s characters except the sisters. Where men do appear (Vershinin, mostly), they are abstract, largely non-verbal figures there as symbols of female desire. There’s little of Chekhov’s text, either; Jatahy focuses on the relationship dynamics between the women more than the plot. Maria is outwardly sad and frustrated in her relationship with her husband, and when their old friend, Vershinin (Paulo Camacho), arrives at the party, she pours her lust and dissatisfaction into him – or rather, into the camera he is wielding. In the theatre half, she is speaking to a corporeal body, but when these images are revealed in the film, she is speaking directly to the audience through the screen.
Maria invites the live audience onto the stage for a dance party when things get too heavy. She pours wine (this time “with alcohol”) and cranks “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure or “Freedom” by George Michael. Olga stands by herself in the corner, slowly sipping wine and swaying to the music. In order to torture herself more, she interrupts the more upbeat song, puts on Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”, and encourages everyone to couple up and dance together. This devolves into the sisters clutching each other, holding on for whatever reason they have left to stick it out. Even in the live performance, it’s a cinematic sequence. The lighting doesn’t change or anything, but the performances are so natural and the few people who volunteer to leave their seats and dance on stage seem to forget they’re in a play. The very real feeling of someone being extremely sad at a party washes over the audience, too. As Maria and Vershinin dance, Olga sees a life she’ll never have and Teixeira captures this smiling-through-the-pain with gut-wrenching accuracy.
Events you’ve seen in the live version are then shown from a different angle in the film, as if what you saw “in real life” is not actually what happened. In a lot of ways, the film, as the medium is wont to do, brings us closer to the sisters. The cameras are often right in their faces, looking into and, sometimes, what seems like through their eyes into a vast subterranean well of resentment and sorrow. A rectangular box of water serves as a submersion vessel for all three sisters’ feelings, allowing them to quite literally drown the pain and the camera permeates the glass walls, putting us into the water with them.
In the film, Olga and Maria leave Irina alone with the guests at the party and take the camera out with them. Alone on stage, in the live half, Bernat steps from the character and tells us about Irina’s pain in the third person. “We’re not in the movie now,” she says, letting her guard and, by proxy, Irina’s guard down and laying the truth bare. Simultaneously, Olga and Maria go into an alley and confront the gruesome sight of an unforgiving mirror. We’re only privy to this scene in the film. Maria encourages Olga to put on lipstick and change her dress, calling her beautiful when she does. When the two mediums converge again, Olga struts in feeling more confident, displaying her red lips and her sparkling smock with pride.
Jatahy’s production succeeds in tapping into the psyche of these women by zeroing in on the ways their depression varies by minute degree, person to person. It gives space to this deftly shaded distinction, allowing the smallest reactions of each of the sisters to speak volumes about their inner life. Irina blasts, “Fuck the System,” strips off her clothes, and head bangs. Maria submits to an extramarital affair with Vershinin, mostly because he’s there and, through his camera, pays attention to her. Olga suffuses love and caring to her sisters and to us, giving away what she cannot receive.
Chekhov’s play all but disappears from view when it reaches the original Act III (What if they went to Moscow? is performed in two repeating ninety-minute sections with no act break). The final two acts of the original play are compressed into a horror collage where Olga wanders in the dark with a candle and wide eyes, Maria fantasizes about sex with Vershinin and then masturbates and flagellates violently, and Irina reckons with a self-destructive sexting relationship with Solioni. The production also bleeds between the two spaces. Maria appears in the cinema and her image is broadcast into the theatre. Irina and Olga join her there and, again, state the actual date, time, location, and desire to explore if it is possible to change.
At the end of both halves, a camera in the theatre turns on the audience and broadcasts us to the cinema and a camera in the cinema broadcasts that audience to the theatre. Desire, the sisters say, is like looking through a mirror. They leave us alone to look at ourselves, to file out of the space and switch places, visibly moving through the looking glass. Our physical location has changed, but nothing is actually different. The audience goes to “Moscow” – a place we have only seen and heard about – but the sisters stay trapped in this liminal middle ground, left to repeat themselves, to relive these futile experiences over again.