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HE PUTS ACTORS' SKILLS, PATIENCE TO THE TEST Photos are being sent to NYTNS Photo Service subscribers. Non-subscribers can make individual purchases by calling 212-556-4204 or 888-603-1036.) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - People who have seen Krystian Lupa's work speak of it in hushed, awestruck tones. "He's a god" is a phrase that crops up frequently. But chances are, if you're neither Polish nor deeply immersed in the world of contemporary European theater, you've never heard of him. 

The American Repertory Theatre hopes to change that. After years of negotiating and logistical planning, driven by a shared passion for the Polish director's work among the leaders of the ART, Lupa is now preparing to mount his first production ever in English. Lupa's interpretation of "Three Sisters," Anton Chekhov's tragicomic exploration of a provincial Russian family and its nostalgic longing for Moscow, opens Saturday at the Loeb Drama Center and runs through the end of the year. It has also been chosen to close next summer's Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, which is coproducing the play with the ART.

Boston theatergoers thus have a rare chance to get ahead of the rest of the English-speaking theater world.

In Krakow, where Lupa is a resident director at the Stary Teatr and teaches directing at the National Theatre Academy, "you don't go to the theater to see 'Three Sisters,' you go to see Lupa's 'Three Sisters,"' says Gideon Lester, associate artistic director of the ART.

Just what Lupa's "Three Sisters" will be like is, of course, difficult to know until it opens. But in rehearsals here, it already feels complex, deeply layered, and, as Lester puts it, "very fragmentary, in the way that Chekhov wrote it. It's a lot of little encounters."

Lupa is also taking a complex approach to the design and setting of the play, opening the first act in a realistic and contemporary style and gradually transforming the production into something more dreamlike and temporally remote. Part of his objective, Lupa says through a translator, "is to discover a new way of telling this story in theater." And that, says Lester, is precisely what the director does in all his work.

Lester describes the Lupa productions he's seen in Europe, including adaptations of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita" and of Hermann Broch's "Sleepwalkers" trilogy, as "the most memorable things I have ever seen in a theater. Truly."

They are highly theatrical but never stagy, Lester says. They sometimes get "really crazy, but it doesn't feel like a violation of the play; it feels like an exploration of the play," he adds. "It's not about a postmodern director coming in and pasting an interpretation on a work."

What makes the difference, Lester says, is the amount of time Lupa invests in "activating the actors' imaginations" - working with them, deeply and over a long time, to uncover many nuances and layers in every moment of the play. Typically, Lupa will take at least a year to develop and rehearse a production before opening it to the public - but then it stays in repertory for eight or nine years, and he continues to tweak it along the way.

That schedule just can't work in the American theater economy.

The ART has given Lupa 10 weeks to prepare "Three Sisters" - a strikingly long time here, "but for him it's really short," Lester says. Work here is further complicated by several layers of translation: from Chekhov's Russian to Lupa's Polish adaptation and then again to the actors' English script, and between the cast and Lupa by means of a translator who accompanies him throughout rehearsals.

Taking Lupa's direction in translation, says Frank Wood, who plays the unhappily married Vershinin, "feels like you're receiving words from an oracle. And it comes in a syntax that's somewhat formal." In discussing an actor's reading of a particular line, for example, "he says 'your proposal' - which is enormously satisfying - 'this proposal of yours I accept, or I accept in part.' It's enormously engaging and unsettling."

Wood confesses to a "combination of awe and frustration" at Lupa's methods, which include an intensive focus on back story, an insistence on improvisation as a way of exploring character, and a tendency to talk about the scenes more than to run through them.

"I feel somewhat dismantled and reassembled a bit," Wood says.

"It's also like being in grad school, in that you get a chance to consider these people's lives in a way that you never do in your working life.

Actors are longing for the work that we do right now - except for the part where he talks so much!"

At one recent rehearsal, the actors work through a scene in Act 3, which has each of the Prozorov sisters delivering a confessional monologue. Then they squirm and fidget as Lupa delivers his own monologue, a stream of thoughts on their work and on the scene, for more than an hour straight.

Finally, after he urges the actors to be "cruelly, aggressively honest toward me," Molly Ward, who plays the romantically doomed sister Masha, speaks up.

"Really?" she demands.

Lupa nods.

She explodes: "Why can't we rehearse more and talk less!"

The other actors nod in relief. But Ward insists later that, despite the impatience they feel at times, she's finding her work with Lupa a remarkable experience.

"There's that sense of being so frustrated, because you don't get to do it, that by the time you do get to do it, it comes from a place of really needing to do it. And that's just what your acting teachers are always telling you: You can't just go out onstage. There has to be a real need to be there," Ward says. "And watching him talk about our characters' lives, him acting them out, it kind of hits you in the gut. He's trying to hammer in from the outside, and then we have to do it. He makes the atmosphere and the place so that whatever it is for us, it couldn't be anything else."

Partly Lupa does this by talking; partly he does it by beating a drum, softly and ceaselessly, as the actors rehearse, creating a kind of heartbeat pulsing just below the surface of their work. At home he sometimes drums in performance, but here it's just part of the rehearsal process, to be replaced by Jacek Ostaszewski's original music onstage.

"The sound, the subconscious layer, the ambient, is very important for this, because it guides the actors. It creates a space for them," Lupa says through his translator. "And I must say that the actors, when inspired and determined rhythmically, start to look for other solutions.

They get much more courageous, much more risky."

Courageous and risky: That's the kind of theater that interests Lupa. And, he hopes, that's what his "Three Sisters" will be.

"I have an impression that if Chekhov had written his plays two generations later and was not a product of the realistic tradition, he would stand much closer to Kafka than to Tolstoy," Lupa says.

"When we start following the inner and hidden madness of the characters, we discover another structure, a structure that has been sunk in the piece. And the play becomes more of a psychodrama that happens among a given group of individuals, rather than a realistic tale of a story about a given family.

... So we start this play in the realistic convention, and we set off for a journey through other ways of participating in our own fate."

c.2005 The Boston Globe

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