What do Anton Chekhov’s most celebrated play, The Three Sisters, written in 1901, and Saturday Night Live’s character Debbie Downer have in common? Superficially, not much. But co-directors Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt have reached for, and occasionally found, the intersection between the two in their theater performance, Kill the Debbie Downers! Kill Them! Kill Them! Kill Them Off!
Briefly, Kill the Debbie Downers! employs acting, movement, music, and poetry to introduce issues of social and personal change as viewed through the experience of the main characters in The Three Sisters.
Chekhov’s The Three Sisters is about three Russian siblings, who live with their (off-stage) brother Andrey and his unsophisticated wife Natasha (Amanda Farbstein) on the edge of a small provincial Russian town near an army base. The sisters yearn to return to their now glorified former home of Moscow. While circumstances prevent their homecoming, they suffer boredom, listlessness, and longing. Although Chekhov thought his play a comedy, the sisters’ social aspirations on the one hand, and their loneliness on the other, are written with both irony and sympathy. Of course, these days, the sisters’ inability to control or improve their lives may be seen as a feminist polemic.
For those who long ago gave up watching commercial TV, Saturday Night Live’s character Debbie Downer was first portrayed by Rachel Dratch in 2004. Dratch explained her character’s derivation in her book, Girl Walks into a Bar …, “I was on vacation in Costa Rica and when I told someone that I was from New York, they asked, ‘Were you there for 9/11?’ The conversation froze. When I got back, the name [Debbie Downer] popped into my head.” Many funny SNL skits followed, in which Debbie Downer silenced gatherings of happy people with inappropriate bad news or negative comments, thus bringing down the mood of everyone around her. A close-up of Dratch’s sideways smirk and a trombone’s “wha… wha… ” sound ended each skit.
The one-act, two-hour production of Kill the Debbie Downers! by the Shotgun Players introduces the three sisters with an intriguingly choreographed scene in which the siblings perform dance movements with chairs. And they skillfully repeat their introductory lines several times, each time with different emphases and effects. The eldest is the overworked unmarried schoolteacher Olga (Sam Jackson). Masha, the middle sister (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Iron Shoes) is married to another schoolteacher, Kulygin, whom she despises. She has an affair with the army colonel Vershinin. The youngest, Irina (Gabby Battista) lives in a lingering fog, has fanciful ideas about the value of work and is in love with the concept of love.
Also in the talented cast are Chebutykin (Billy Raphael, Twelfth Night), a sixty-year-old alcoholic army doctor who once loved the sisters’ mother and the brooding Captain Solyony (Nathaniel Andalis) who suffers from unrequited love for Irina. Kill the Debbie Downers! does not follow the four-act plot of The Three Sisters, but it would be helpful to be familiar with it to appreciate all its references.
I’m not exactly sure that I follow Wilmurt’s and Jackson’s creative processes in Kill the Debbie Downers! and the plight of the sisters who are stuck inside the provinces with the Moscow blues again (pardon the Dylan re-phrase). Jackson wrote that “Chekhov helps us explore the negotiations we make between the personal and the political.” I get that. It’s an important concept. But, nevertheless, I don’t think the production, with its videos of imploding buildings, Christine Blasey Ford’s hearing, and horrendous firestorms fits together. (Although there is a house fire in The Three Sisters, Shotgun’s audience doesn’t see or know about it.)
It seems as though Beth Wilmurt and Mark Jackson are working harder than should be necessary to make their ideas work cohesively. On the other hand, Kill the Debbie Downers! is creatively set and staged (Mikiko Uesugi, set designer); the acting is first-rate; the music, which includes singing accompanied by an accordion, piano, banjo, and even a trombone at one point, is novel and entertaining.
This is not the first time Beth Wilmurt explored the personality of Olga. She sang an evocative musical salute to her, Olga, A Farewell Concert, at Aurora’s Harry’s Upstage in 2017
Kill the Debbie Downers! is playing at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley through April 21, 2019. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit The Shotgun Players.