Three Days in the Country opens in a languid mood. The scene is a bright day in the Russian countryside, circa 1850: a trio of elders sits at a table playing hearts, while a well-dressed woman lounges on a settee absentmindedly leafing through a book. A gentleman visitor – an old friend, clearly, from his familiar manner – vies for her attention with some teasing, sophisticated witticisms. The local doctor arrives, summoned to check in on one of the estate’s peasants. A child runs through, chased by his tutor; the business of the estate hums in the background. But underneath that languid air is a restless energy, a restiveness fueled by boredom and monotony, by the existential dis-ease of privilege, and by the sharp, unexpected sting of desire.
If you think this sounds like the opening to a Chekhov play, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark – except that Three Days in the Country: an unfaithful version is a modern script, by Patrick Marber, based on a play written by Ivan Turgenev in 1850, a decade before Chekhov was born. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I could only wish that we had translations of Chekhov that are as good as Marber’s adaptation of Turgenev, because then we might really get why Russians consider Chekhov to be one of their great comic playwrights. Dare I say that Marber has out-Chekhoved Chekhov with this very funny and piercingly poignant play? In any case, he creates a similar world, and under Andrew Paul’s sensitive direction, the thirteen-member ensemble at Kinetic Theatre Company brings it exquisitely to life, rendering the existential angst of Turgenev’s 19th-century Russian tale simultaneously ludicrous and heartwrenching.
The plot centers on unrequited love: Natalya Arkady (Nike Doukas), the middle-aged mistress of the estate, has fallen in love with Belyaev (Adam Haas Hunter), a young man from Moscow who has recently begun tutoring her son Kolya (Will Sendera). Her seventeen-year-old ward, Vera (Katie Wieland), is also in love with Belyaev, as is the flirtatious housemaid, Katya (Erika Strasburg), who spurns her fiancé Matvey (Andrew William Miller) for the more dashing tutor. Gentleman visitor Rakitin (Leo Marks), meanwhile, has been in love with Natalya since the day he and best friend Arkady (David Whalen) caught sight of her on a Moscow street; Arkady claimed Natalya for his bride, and Rakitin has hovered at the edges of their marriage ever since, unable to tear himself from the object of his burning desire. Complicating things further, an elderly rich neighbor Bolshintsov (Larry John Meyers) has his eye on young Vera, and sends Dr. Shpigelsky (Sam Tsoutsouvas) to negotiate for her hand; Shpigelsky, for his part, seeks the hand of Lizaveta (Helena Ruoti), companion to Arkady’s mother Anna (Susie McGregor-Laine), who, along with the German tutor Schaaf (David Crawford), is in the minority of characters in the play who aren’t involved in an unbalanced love affair.
This isn’t really a play that involves a great deal of plot, however; the interest here is in character, and in the way characters express their needs, their wants, their disappointments, and their anguishes. Often those expressions involve a dark humor, as when the despondent Rakitin, plucking a raspberry from a basket, implores “Be poisoned. Take me. Do it now.” Marks builds a beautiful performance in the character of Rakitin, who is arguably the most tragic character of the bunch; for most of the play, his awareness of the hopelessness of his yearning for Natalya comes through in biting, self-deprecating flippancy, but in the second act he wears his soul on his sleeve in a bravura display of pain and anguish that reveals the beating heart beneath his world-weary cynicism.
Director Andrew Paul skillfully knits together the play’s comedy and its pathos, finding the humor in its darker moments, and the seriousness in its lighter ones. A comic high point comes in the beginning of the second act, when the misanthropic doctor surprises Lizaveta with a marriage proposal, and then proceeds to catalogue his many character flaws. Masterful with their comic timing, Tsoutsouvas and Ruoti manage to convey the tender desolation at the core of their characters while giving the audience one laugh after another.
Lovely moments of erotic tension bloom throughout the play as well. Those raspberries, disappointingly not poisonous for Rakitin, feature prominently in a charged moment of flirtation between Belyaev and Katya (as does a plum, in a later scene). As Belyaev, Hunter brings a self-assured, cocky energy to the stage: he’s the young interloper who has sexual charisma to burn, and he clearly enjoys using it to throw all of the women around him off balance. But it’s a testament to the psychological complexity of Marber’s script, and to Hunter’s realization of the character, that Belyaev also seems oblivious of his own seductive powers. At one point Rakitin asks him “are you a bumbler or an assassin?” and the answer, in the end, seems to be: both. Certainly he has a nearly fatal effect on Natalya and Vera, the two women who have fallen hardest for his charms. Doukas and Wieland are nuanced in these roles, making themselves painfully open and vulnerable to their characters’ desire; the confusion and humiliation they each experience has a raw and shattering effect, and in the end it’s their losses, along with Rakitin’s, that linger.
All this yearning and pining and self-denial takes place on Narelle Sissons’ evocative set, a square, spare boardwalk tufted with dune grass that floats, island-like, in the middle of the audience, and underscores the isolation of the characters who populate the world of the play. The abstraction of the set is countered by Kim Brown’s costumes, which ground the play in temporal and geographic specificity, and seem to profuse patterns and flowers and paisleys as if the characters were animals displaying their mating plumage.
But it’s a mating dance that goes tragicomically awry, not least because these complex, beautifully realized characters are so deeply wrapped in themselves, they’re incapable of the generosity that constitutes real love. And so the play leaves us with lingering, sad-funny insights about the vicissitudes of love and loneliness, like the one expressed by Lizabeta when she turns down the doctor’s offer of marriage: “I can live with my unhappiness,” she says. “I don’t want to live with yours.”