Posted by: strugglesome | July 21, 2010

Sisters are doing it for themselves: Temple Repertory Theater’s Three Sisters

When celebrating a birthday, it’s typically not considered the best move to remind the birthday girl of her father’s fairly recent death.  While you might say it with the best of all possible intentions, it’s probably going to be perceived as a downer. Unless, of course, it’s also the first line of Anton Chekhov’s masterful and penetrative penultimate play, Three Sisters, which is probably the most performed of Chekhov’s four major works. I personally have seen this play a grand total of 5 times in 3 different languages,  and considering I recently celebrated my own 23 years of life, that’s not half bad, if you think about it. But to be fair, I’m kind of a Chekhov groupie. So before I begin my ruminations on the newly minted Temple Repertory Theater’s Three Sisters, I should warn my readers that I love Chekhov like I love ice cream, ugly animals and Saturday mornings, that is, wildly, unconditionally, and with great joy. The consequences of that love, however, include an even high level of criticism and attention to detail then I normally display. Just remember, you were warned.

Where were we? Oh, yes, “Father died a year ago today!” chirps Yvette Ganier as  Olga Prozorova, the eldest of the three Prozorova sisters, to her two compatriots, Masha and Irina, deftly played with just a handful of missteps by Kate Czajkowski and Genevieve Perrier, respectively, and just like that the fun begins. Over the next four acts we will get to know the Prozorov family in all four seasons as they wander in and out of a sparsely furnished set designed by Dirk Durossete, against an abstract background of exposed scaffolding adorned with five vaguely Japanese screen prints. The audience sits on the stage itself, creating a semi-thrust and allowing the action of the play to exist on the same level as the audience bank. While not a wildly original choice when it comes to Chekhov, (theatrical lore tells us that Stanislavki, the original director of Chekhov’s major works as the Moscow Art Theater, once build an entire house for a set, most of which was invisible to the audience, just to give the spectator the sense of literally being in the living room of a family dwelling), it’s an effective one, because in a play about family, intimacy and social restriction, you really do want to be able to see the actors sweat.  John Hoey’s lightening design certainly makes that more then possible, and while his work was more then sufficient, it would have been nice had he had more to do. The most elaborate aspect of the design are the costumes by Millie Hiibel, whose work is flawless and sumptuous, especially her costumes for Masha and Irina.

In sum, the minimalist setting proves a good choice for this production, which seems to be focused in part on the nature of the space itself as it interacts with the play. This is the Prozorov house, yes, but no one in the Prozorov family is actually interested in living here. People wander in and out of the space with no sense of ownership of the setting, beautifully portraying the ambivalence of these characters, the denial on the part of all three sisters about what their lives have become. Only Rebecca Rich, who shines as she overlays saccharine sweetness on top of sharp viciousness as Natasha, seems to actually want to be living in the space, digging her tentacles deeper and deeper into the house as it is abandoned by all around her. Wherever the three sisters live, it’s not in this tiny town in rural Russia, but rather in a world created solely in their own respective heads, and director Dan Kern’s triumph is in his portrayal of the tension between the eternal hope of each sister’s imagined existence, and their frustration with their reality.

It’s this through line that sustains an otherwise flagging rhythm. It’s always a difficult task to enter into the atmosphere of Chekhovian text. The most exciting thing about Chekhov is that his plays are look thickly woven pieces of cloth, which first appear to look one way, serene and placid. However, the more time you spend watching, the more you can see all of the other threads running underneath the surface of the fabric, all of the activity happening below that begins to become the only thing you can see. A production of a Chekhov play becomes bad, of course, when it lets one of those threads breaks, and instead of a fascinating examination of the insurmountable barriers of the human soul you have a rather boring discussion of 19th century Russia.

At it’s best, this production is a compelling, tender, funny and affecting look at the lives of these complex and beautifully made characters which preserves the tensions running through the play in a way that makes it exciting and unexpected. Fantastic moments include any with Steve Kuhel as the troubled and troubling Solyony; Kuhel brings a danger to the role that is both compelling and frightening, and all together appropriate. Equally excellent is David Ingram at Kulygin, Masha’s impossibly pedantic but shockingly understanding husband, who gives the role humor and a tender patience, and Gregg Almquist as the token older Doctor figure (Chekhov himself was a doctor, and liked to say he didn’t write characters, he diagnosed them) sweet and pitiful and satirical in turns. Each of these actors strikes an excellent balance of humor and devastation, allowing each aspect to break through with just the right amount of finesse and restraint. Of course, it’s easier to do that if you have fewer lines to memorize.

The main burden of the play falls on it’s title characters, and for the most part they carry it adequately. Perrier as Irina, the lively optimist and youngest of the three, whose constant cries of “Moscow, Moscow!” make this play the butt of Woody Allen jokes, sparkles and shines with hope and vigor as the play begins, informing us with all the arrogance of a 20 year old “I woke up this morning and I realized I know how to live!”.  As the piece continues, however, her energy begins to grate, and the high point of her emotional arc, a famous speech at the finish of Act 3,  becomes more hysterical then meaningful, overblown rather then emotionally solvent. However, by Act 4 Perrier has hit her stride once again, and she displays a maturity and emotional depth that imbues the character with an amazing inner life. Czajkowski as Masha, the second sister whose marriage to the local school teacher Kulygin has made her bitter and disillusioned with life, is a fluidly balanced mix of resentment and desperation, as deeply sympathetic in her despair as she is infectious in her bubbling and effervescent love for Rob Kahn’s Vershinin.  While Kahn does a decent job of portraying Vershinin’s charm and pompous but attractive persuasiveness, it is Czajkowski that makes that relationship alive and glowing on the stage. Her sole false moment lies at the end of the play as she says her goodbyes to Vershinin and all at once becomes a character from a melodrama, collapsing and moaning through her tears in a way that becomes uncomfortable to watch when it should in fact be deeply moving. Ganier as Olga is the weakest of the three actresses, or perhaps it’s that Olga is the most difficult role to play. She has none of Irina’s wide eyed charm or Masha’s gorgeous depression, she chatters incessantly, and many of her lines, when delivered badly, sound like mere exposition. Ganier hits the mark well when she is speaking longingly of her own desires, so often placed aside for those of her family, but she misses so much of the humor that makes Olga interesting. Quite simply, the character of Olga includes a great deal to laugh at, and it is perhaps the most challenging task for any actor to make yourself appear to be unintentionally hilarious, to invite others to find you funny.

When I tell people that I love Chekhov, they tend to tell me that they find his work deeply depressing. I would respond to that, well, then you haven’t seen a good production of Chekhov. Three Sisters is indeed a troubling work, but to be fair, any honest examination of human nature and desire is going to be troubling. But in it’s best moments, Temple Repertory Theater also brings out the joy, the hope, the hilarity and, yes, the devastation inherent in this work. At the end of this piece, we aren’t left with an ending, but rather the sense of continuing, of life moving on, as it is bound to do. As Vershinin says in the final act of the play, “Mankind is passionately seeking something. And I hope we find it”.

If you love Chekhov, or the human condition, or 3 hour debates by people with funny names and dreams defered, you can learn more about the production and purchase tickets here. Temple Repertory Theater’s Three Sisters will be running from now until August 1st at the Tomlinson Theater.

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