A New Lexicon of Grief

A Completely Biased Tech-Obsessed Reflection on Eric Marlin’s Virtual Play three sisters I never had

I met playwright Eric Marlin in Iowa while we persued MFAs. Arguably, we became friends during a class our first semester titled simply “Chekhov.” Trump was elected while our class was in the second week of discussing Three Sisters with four more weeks to go before we’d switch to Cherry Orchard. The last visitor in my apartment before the pandemic was Eric and his fiancé. They came into a freezing Minneapolis to see Half Straddle’s Is this a room? at the Walker. We slipped on ice walking there and back from my apartment. We talked about the show and their wedding plans while playing board games in my kitchen. We didn’t know, of course, how a year would color that experience, how the unique claustrophobia of Is this a room? would change shape over time, how many wedding plans changed, and how being in someone’s kitchen would cease.

It’s this baggage I brought to Marlin’s virtual play three sisters I never had produced by Healthy Oyster Collective under the direction of Erica Wray, who has also stayed in my apartment more than once, and director of photography and assistant director Kari Barclay, who cheerfully talked to me about playwriting and performance studies six months ago. But baggage is something three sisters I never had expects you to bring. The show is aware that you are watching from your desk or bed — intimate, domestic, entertainment, and business space colliding into one screen, one space. We kick, breathe, sit next to, stare at, and swallow our baggage every day while we work and relax, usually only escaping it for brief sojourns for groceries. And now our theater must take that into account. The set design of virtual theater now belongs partly to the audience, whether we like it or not. 

A tape deck rewinds all the way until it clicks, then presses forward. A buzzing begins.

Marlin’s play uses the sisters and a few events in Chekhov’s play to discuss the unique moment we’re experiencing while never mentioning it. The play’s protagonist, Not Chekhov, conjures the sisters in order to process his mother’s worsening fatal illness in a white room 3,000 miles away from him. Not Chekhov judges his apartment décor, questions the memories he has about himself and his mother, and dreams Jewish dread all while having nothing else to focus on but his copy of Chekhov’s plays translated by Anne Dunnigan and an analysis of Three Sisters his brain won’t stop imposing on his current situation.

Over simplistically, Chekhov’s Three Sisters is about three sisters grieving the death of their patriarch who died years before. The sisters refuse to act to change their lives while still longing for an altered circumstance which might lead to joy. Their inaction causes them to continue to lose power, agency, and hope within their own home. Most frustratingly in Act Three, their town burns down and they do not act to save their neighbors, but they do discuss their own sadness, their disbelief about the town fire, and the hope to throw a benefit once it finishes burning. It was quite the play to read during the 2016 election and its aftermath, and quite the play to return to in this moment.

A multi-colored neon apparition of Olga’s face descends into a mix of hot pinks and greens before disappearing. I know Olga, too. I bowled with that actress, Cristina Goyeneche, in Iowa after Trump was elected.

In general Chekhov’s plays are obsessed with the future and the past while the characters struggle to exist in the present, as if they would fair better in the sepia tone of “before” or the brilliant light of “later.” Marlin’s “now” is a digital, impressionistic kaleidoscope of melancholy that doesn’t say it’s about melancholy.

Marlin and his team crafted a performance that examines the weight of absence, the grief of lack, the void that has become itemizing the tchotchkes around our apartments and the endless contemplations about how to change the space we breathe every day while ignoring nagging fears about family death. It’s a performance about lingering sickness, theater, depression, shifting technologies, and Jewishness while not explicitly about any of those things, just as Chekhov’s play is about the insurmountable grief the sisters feel even though they don’t know how to express grief or change the feeling, so they sit in their longings. Throughout Marlin’s play sounds of static buzzing, a tape deck rewinding and clicking forward, interrupts the flow of action, creating glitches we’ve become accustomed to on our Zoom screens and in our minds as we find it increasingly hard to focus in our homes.

The tape rewinds.

The play situates itself amid these technical distractions while trying to untangle knots of knots. In one screen we’re watching Not Chekhov talk about his mother. While he speaks to us, a recording of him pacing while on the phone plays. A horizontal line of VHS tracking breaks his body in half. In the screen of his direct address he looks away, pausing for a moment to contemplate his windowsill, and Irina’s screen illuminates as his pacing body disappears, perhaps she’s shouting at him, but she can’t be heard and he can’t see her. She’s gone before he looks up. Then a buzzing prompts all the windows to close. I almost thought I imagined he was talking about his mother. Maybe he wasn’t, because what follows is a list of paint colors that could also be things he misses: shoe leather, chai latte, strawberry winter. He’s thinking of painting his windowsill.

In December my little sister gave birth to a new baby. Her husband watched the delivery over Zoom.

Not Chekhov debates two opposing Jewish analyses of Three Sisters. In one analysis, Irina’s inability to remember the word for “window” in Italian carries the weight of the mostly forgotten language of Yiddish. Not Chekhov does not like that reading, favoring the one where Natasha, unseen in Marlin’s play but represented by a burning pink candle, is a Zionist who reclaims the house from the sisters making Natasha an unintentional hero of the play. Not Chekhov is not a Zionist. Interspersed scenes of Irina saying the same word in Yiddish and Italian break through moments of Not Chekhov recalling a terrifying dream featuring ram’s blood, a green tower, and maggots that reveal his mother’s face. He can’t remember the Yiddish for window. His mother never knew Italian. Or Yiddish? He can’t remember which and we are left uncertain.

One of the sisters sums up a three-hour phone call with his mother as one in which she described everything around her but herself. Whatever the mother’s sickness and condition we do not know, she does not say, and Not Chekhov and his not sisters do not illuminate. The counter-balance of this glut and absence of information caught in my throat. I thought of the hours-long conversations I had over the phone when the year inside began and, how months later following up with friends that fall, more than one would disclose suicidal ideation as a reason for their move back home or away from it. Later, Not Chekhov says clearly to dispel some mystery, “my mother is not dying of the thing you think she’s dying of, so she doesn’t even benefit from camaraderie.”

At some point, I couldn’t tell if the buzzing was in my headphones or in my head.

There are many absences in Marlin’s play. There are things that Not Chekhov — named “Not Chekhov” — does not say and there are omissions to which he flamboyantly points. Of the duel between Tuzenbach and Solyony over Irina, Irina cheerfully giggles a conspiratorial half-whisper to us: “Irina loves neither of these men.” Later, Not Chekhov will say it’s a problem you’re hearing “only” from him, the voices of his not sisters and their suffering seamlessly elided into what he’s telling and not telling you.

Not Chekhov and the not sisters list all the characters referenced but not seen in Three Sisters including the distraught, mentally ill wife of Vershinin, Masha’s not-so-secret lover. Vershinin’s wife, again totally unseen, threatens suicide throughout Chekhov’s play. Sometimes her attempts are meant to be funny, a reason that Vershinin can’t be with Masha, but also, as an absent force of suffering that’s much different than that of the sisters’.

Not Chekhov lists all the people his mother has described but he’s never met. While he lists them, the not sisters hold up photos: Irina holds up ornately framed black and white photographs; Masha presents frameless photos that have the half-matte, half-gloss tint of the sixties, seventies, and eighties; and Olga holds her cell phone to the screen, scrolling through colorful image after image of the actors’ family in masks. Not Chekhov’s list of the unseen characters in his mother’s life goes on and on as the not sisters show pictures of their families.

Characters mentioned but not seen in Marlin’s play: the mother, the boyfriend, Covid-19, quarantine, shutdown, theater, you.

Marlin’s and Chekhov’s play revolve around “not doing” or the absence of doing. The most active thing Not Chekhov does in the play is paint his windowsill, a decision he reverses with white paint, and then the same green paint again. Later we see him brush his teeth while Irina extolls the virtue of being a laborer, lines from her source material. Her joy at labors slowly to turns to dark judgment of herself and Not Chekhov as she venomously speaks of creatures who wake after noon, “drink coffee in bed and spend two hours dressing.” Not Chekhov spits his toothpaste and growls, “Fuck you, Irina,” defending how long it took him to get dressed that day. Later still we see him outside his apartment trying to camp before announcing, “Jews don’t camp” and a jump cut back to him live in his apartment. Earlier, he had struggled to figure out how he would obtain a tent. The inability to go a store like normal is left unsaid. These actions, while active, don’t do much to address the real issue.

This is a play about absence. The absence accumulates like the snow shown falling in cuts to the window, adding weights to something almost named. The absence makes you think you’re missing something. Because you are. Of course you are. Not Chekhov says, “grief can radicalize or pacify,” as his face fragments into multiple screens and angles. 

The tape rewinds.

We have become comfortable with a lexicon of terms and qualifiers to describe the new absences we feel, or feelings caused by new absences, or absences of feeling — Zoom fatigue, weak tie friendships, quarantine depression, social distancing, etc. all to express a grief over the things we miss that we cannot safely enjoy at the moment. The “maybes” and “mights” of these absences produce a longing, a longing Not Chekhov describes as infantile, like the sisters wishing to return to Moscow. “Infantile longing,” like wishing to be with your mother while she dies 3,000 miles away, but knowing even if you were one mile away, you wouldn’t be able to touch her.

There are a number of Yiddish words that have become a part of the American lexicon — schlep, nosh, schmooze, tchotchke, bupkis, etc. “Glitch” is derived from a Yiddish word meaning slippery place and I remember that Eric held my hand over a particularly slippery patch of ice when we walked to the theater so I wouldn’t fall. A number of performed glitches — screen freezes, line tracking, discoloration, and distortion — in three sisters I never had made me question my internet connection and look for something to fix. But there was nothing to fix.

A fire siren blares as if it has been sounding all along.

Natasha, unseen, crosses from stage left to stage right. Not Chekhov and his not sisters track her movements across the unseen stage as a fire crackles, also unseen. The moment is uncomfortable and goes on delightfully longer than expected as Not Chekhov and his not sisters contemplate Natasha’s cruelty and why she doesn’t like them. Later, the not sisters carry their lit candles in the darkened hallways of their apartments and speak lines from Act Three about music and benefits for survivors of the fire. The sound of the town still burning plays under their words. Not Chekhov talks about repainting his windowsill and the argument he keeps having with his boyfriend about the color.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Not Chekhov says, as he lists the things he might do — try camping again, fly to his mother only to stand outside her window, see inside of the green tower he keeps dreaming of, re-paint the windowsill a “better color” than the neon Las Vegas green he landed on. The refrain of “maybe tomorrow” is one that quietly hums in the background of my apartment every day.

I haven’t seen my family in-person since last January, about a week before I saw Eric.

Memory, past, and present collide and then fragment in Marlin’s recreation of Act Four. The not sisters and Not Chekhov each turn on two additional cameras within their homes. Nine screens of four faces in odd perspectives deliver lines in a chaotic breaking open of what’s already been said. The refrain of “knew” echoes in most of the lines — a mixture of things Not Chekhov, his boyfriend, and his mother said, and quotes from the end of Chekhov’s play. The moment descends into a sinking Not Chekhov who is thinking in a prolonged silence and then discovers, “I can’t remember how to say Kaddish,” a Hebrew prayer recited at Jewish funerals. He repeats, “I can’t remember how to say Kaddish” over and over, as an incantation, as if the knowledge might return to him, as if he’s willing it to return.

The terror of Marlin’s plays lies in a sinking feeling. He takes an emotion and burrows down. Once you realize you’re holding your breath, the play is over and he makes you choose whether or not you want to applaud or sit in the sink. The trouble is, he makes you laugh while he does it. He’d hate me for saying so, but he kinda writes like Chekhov.

Olga and Not Chekhov share the final words from the source material. Olga urges everyone, through tears, to focus on work. Work, she says, will make this suffering matter and will mean that they will be remembered with kindness and joy by the next generation. “We must live,” she says, but just as in Chekhov’s play, we question if she means it.

Like many theatermakers, I’ve questioned what will become of our work now. I don’t worry for the industry because the industry needs to change. And, also because I hate calling it an industry which seems to equate makers with interchangeable cogs unworthy of decent wages and health benefits. But I have thought often about what will become of the work we make. How can we have theater in the time of Covid? And like many theatermakers I’ve become cynical about it. I’ve caught myself saying, “Zoom Theater can’t be theater,” more than once.

The majority of online theater experiences I’ve had seem to recreate the idea of an empty space shared by audience and performers. These re-creations are pale imitations and therefore usually brutal to experience because they seem ill-equipped to encounter a camera. Or, the opposite happens — the film takes over and it’s just another live-streamed Netflix movie, only without the budget. But Marlin’s play was the first experience I’ve had that felt uniquely Zoom Theater. It was not Theater trying to be Theater, but on Zoom. This piece was created with full acknowledgement of the multitudinous spaces it occupies and the various technologies that can engage with a live video screen in its own tech genre.

We are invited into Not Chekhov’s bedroom and by extension into his baggage-ridden headspace with the voices of Irina, Olga, and Masha helping him to understand the radicalization or passivity of the grief he feels in this moment. Irina, Olga, and Masha occupy their own bedrooms across the country naturally because Not Chekhov is trying to pull the 3,000 mile gap between him and the white room his mother occupies closer. But more than all that, Not Chekhov speaks directly to us. He speaks to his sisters, to his mind, but mostly he turns to us and hopes we will fill in the gaps of what he’s intentionally leaving out, because of course we have our own unspoken, unacknowledged grief. This created a Zoom Theater experience that felt the most like theater because very little of what it did would work on stage or in a movie theater. It worked, by design, direction, and as written, only on the virtual live stage.

As “TV Killed the Radio Star” played for the curtain call, a beautiful nod to the audience experience and our current moment, I watched the live chat of several people with names I knew and many I didn’t. I felt that profound sense of absence and presence. Familiar and unfamiliar names emoji’d hand claps, hearts, and smiles from various apartments and home quarantines, reaching out in our virtual theater spaces hoping to feel that connection again. I felt that grief for the Theater we knew, but also the need to radicalize that grief into something more profound as I believe my friend Eric Marlin has done here.

The tape deck clicks. Rewinds. Presses forward.

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