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Actors on Three Sisters
Three consummate Chekhovian actors talk about tackling the Russian master’s plays
We sat down with cast members Roberta Maxwell (Anfísa), George Morfogen (Ferapónt) and Louis Zorich (Chebutýkin) and asked them about their long and intimate relationship acting Chekhov; a passion that spans over half a century and includes many landmark productions.
How many Chekhov characters have you played over the years and which ones?
George: Oddly enough, my first Chekhov was a role I was totally unsuited for. I was a very young man when I played the Professor in VANYA in 1955. It was at the Provincetown Playhouse. I was a pretty young guy, and ironically enough when I did the Professor here at CSC, I got a note backstage from somebody who was in the production with me in 1955 (laughs), which was really quite extraordinary, and he said, “this is even better.” But that’s out of sequence. I played Medvedénko at Drama School at Yale and of course then I did Gáyev and I did Lopákhin in THE CHERRY ORCHARD, twice.
Roberta: Well, I really started my career as a voracious and ambitious teenager in Toronto at a small theater called the Crest Theater. We were doing a production of THREE SISTERS with Kate Reed and Richard Easton. Lots of fantastic people, and of course I was playing Natásha’s little maid who tripped across the stage with the candle. So that was when I was fifteen. And then I came to Stratford, Connecticut. I played Natásha like a cross rooster. Another voracious creature. Then I played Ólga, then Anfísa. And now I’m playing Anfísa a second time.
Louis: I started at Williamstown. I was in one of the Chekhov shows with you there, Roberta. But the first one I did was Lopákhin in THE CHERRY ORCHARD and (laughs) since then, I’ve done Lopákhin about three or four times, and then I’ve done uh, Vanya—were you in that one?
Roberta: Not yours, but I was in VANYA. I played Sonya.
Louis: Then I did Chebutýkin and Dorn two or three times, because Nikos Psacharopoulos at Williamstown would do Chekhov every year. He kept doing it over and (continued from page 4)
over. And by the time you did it six or seven times you started to know what to do with Chekhov!
Roberta: Yes! And what not to do.
Louis: What not to do. Oh what not to do.
Roberta: And THE SEAGULL. THE SEAGULL, I was Nína. Twice. You just keep trying until you’re too damn old!
What’s it like to work your way through these roles and what attracts an actor to play them?
Roberta: The humanity of his huge vision of society. It’s very attractive to be in the presence of and to work through the mind of a great humanitarian. Someone who had such vision. Today they were talking on the television about the deforestation of the world that’s going on in Cancun—well he talked about it in VANYA.
Louis: I agree with Roberta. What attracts me to it is man’s humanity and the fact that he didn’t judge his characters. They’re all human beings. If you ask ten actors, and I mean real actors, which of these playwrights do you like, nine out of ten of them will say Chekhov. Why? Because there’s something about these people—Natásha or even Ólga, or all these wonderful characters—they’re incredible! They’re very human and vulnerable and unpredictable.
Roberta: Also, I don’t know if you feel this, and I’m so happy to be working with you again, but the families that are created amongst the acting family when you are doing a Chekhov mirrors his playwriting. That experience is extremely reinforced during a Chekhov.
What advice would you give young actors?
Roberta: I would say go into rehearsal and be as open as you can possibly imagine yourself to be in the community of actors and the family around you. To every situation and every character that comes up and plays. Don’t stand and deliver your performance. Open yourself up to everyone in the family.
Louis: The thing that always moves me about Chekhov is the yearning. They yearn—they’re always reaching for something and they don’t get it. I don’t care what Chekhov it is, THE SEAGULL, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, or whatever—THREE SISTERS, there’s this incredible, incredible wanting of something. Maybe it’s more naked than in other plays. I was seeing this therapist one time and I was sitting on a couch and I don’t know why, but he said “put your hand out, put your hands out like that and keep going as far as you can” and you know what happened? I started doing that, and I broke down completely. Just that—
Louis: Yes! It’s that reaching, reaching—and I don’t know what happened, it just happened spontaneously.
Roberta: You can’t be chilly in Chekhov.
Louis: Oh no.
Roberta: God knows I have great respect and adoration for the English process, but sometimes, a certain type of English acting can be antithetical to Chekhov.
George: Well, I have a very strong feeling and it’s going to sound rather sweeping. One of the things about Chekhov that I feel is very important is to avoid neurosis. His characters, with very few exceptions—perhaps Andrei’s wife in the play we’re about to do being one—are not neurotic. I had this insight when I was watching a production of VANYA by a Russian company: the scene with the Doctor and Yeléna when they’re looking at the maps. It was simply about the maps. All the resonances, all the sexual tension, everything came out of the maps. I’ve seen productions of that scene where she keeps her distance from him or there’s a very overt sexuality, which ignores the fact that the task is to explain the maps. I use this as an example because the startling thing about that VANYA was that the ladies were totally un-neurotic, and I think that has stayed with me as a kind of guiding light. I don’t say this would work for everybody. And you know, one might say, “Well what is it if it’s not neurotic?” Well, it’s just being.