Williamstown turns up the star power for Chekhov

The way things are going these days, one might well call summer theater in the Berkshires ``Circus of the Stars.'' The final productions of the festivals here have featured enough celebrity candlepower - of the film and TV variety - to light up a Nielsen rating board. What they are doing on the stage boards, though, is another matter. First came Joan Van Ark (``Knots Landing'') starring in ``The Night of the Iguana'' at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Then the Berkshire Theatre Festival trotted out Daniel J. Travanti (``Hill Street Blues'') in a revival of Robert Anderson's ``I Never Sang for My Father.''

Now, Williamstown is turning on the mega-wattage with its production of Chekhov's ``The Three Sisters.'' It features, among others, Amy Irving, Christopher Walken, Rob Lowe, Stephen Collins, and John Heard. It is quite an ensemble for this classic, which, like all of Chekhov, demands great subtlety of ensemble playing.

But at Williamstown what you get is a production that falls far short of conveying any of Chekhov's essential tristesse and loss, as it relates to human connectedness. Although this classic tale of three sisters - who watch their dreams for a better life go whizzing by - is ostensibly a philosophic chronicling of the end of an era (19th-century provincial Russia), it also deals with the characters' inability to sustain real connections. ``Lofty ideas come to us so easily,'' says one protagonist. ``Why do our private lives fall so short?''

With few exceptions, the actors here remain not just wholly unrelated to one another but disconcertingly disparate in style and tone. Which is not to say the production is flawed by famous stars elbowing each other and mugging for the audience. Far from it. Instead, it flounders from a lack of dramatic cohesion. It's a Disney parade, an entertaining flock of characters each with his or her own schtick.

Under Nikos Psacharopoulos's direction, the actors have been left to their own devices. And some - most notably Daniel Davis in the criminally small part of Solyony, the acidic Captain - are more able than others. When such critical roles as Vershinin and Baron Tusenbach are awkwardly and inadequately filled by Messrs. Walken and Lowe, well, the production has no center.

The women, with the single exception of Amy Van Nostrand's off-key portrayal of Natasha, fare better. Amy Irving and Roberta Maxwell are fine as Masha and Olga; Kate Burton is especially luminous as Irina.

It's a laissez faire directorial approach all the more dicey, since Chekhov is an actor's writer: Plot, dramatic climaxes, and most of the action are sacrificed (they occur offstage) for the protagonists' psychological realism.

It is tempting to treat ``The Three Sisters'' as a series of parallel monologues in which the characters tend to take the stage and announce their personal ideology within the first few seconds - spelling out their personal ideologies in economic and exceptionally poetic lines. Actually, the play is a series of spoken duets between Masha and Vershinin, Tusenbach and Irina, Tusenbach and Vershinin, and so on. The existential bantering is anchored by some searing, yet understated emotional give-and-take. That's what is lacking at nearly every turn.

The Masha/Vershinin relationship is pivotal, and Walken's unconvincing and odd delivery just sabotages it. One longs for Mr. Davis, one of the few members of the ensemble with any sustained stage experience (and it shows), to play the role and give this production a much-needed focus.

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