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A CurtainUp Review
The Three Sisters

Our philosophy behind this [the On the Verge series] is very simple: give the next generation of theatre makers a leg up, allow them to have space (both literally and figuratively) to explore the great works of the classical cannon and present this exciting new work to audiences at an affordable ticket price. .
--- Brian Kulik, Artistic Director and Jessica R. Jenen, Executive Director.
Chekhov, like Shakespeare, is one of those playwrights whose works audiences never seem to tire of seeing. His plays' durability and public domain status, are a dual lure for directors, especially those with a bent for new interpretations. Consequently, hardly a season goes by without at least one classic or deconstructed version of a Chekhov " jewel."

In 1997 a perennial favorite, The Three Sisters, had as many stagings as the play has sisters: a traditional revival by the Roundabout Company; a production in Russian from the visiting Moscow Art Theater founded by the play's first director, Konstantin Stanislavsky; and a fascinating cutting edge version in which each act was done in a different style and time frame. (All are linked below).

This year, Pavol Liska, a student in Classic Stage artistic director Brian Kulik's graduate directing program at Columbia University, launches CSC's "On the Verge" program with the saga of the famously "bored, bored, bored" Russian sisters' as a modernistic, stylized ninety-minute riff.

Unlike the sisters and their brother, whose yearning for the excitement of the cosmopolitan existence of Moscow was futile, the Slovakian born Liska has found his Moscow (New York) and seems headed for a promising future in the theater. Paul Schmidt's modern flavored translation may lack some of the original text's richness, but its emphasis on the elements that validate the play as a tragi-comedy suit Liska's production.

In this drastically re-envisioned Sisters the Prozorovs' ennui plays out within a modern day framework , and with several characters, like the old nurse and the caretaker, excised. Instead of a carpeted and fully furnished set, the stage is covered in white linoleum patterned with small black and red diamonds but is bare except for a few isolated props.

The story telling style seems less influenced by Liska's teacher and mentor (Brian Kulick) than Ivo van Hove, the Dutch director who's in recent years made quite a stir with his deconstructions of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Ibsen at New York Theatre Workshop. That influence is evident everywhere-- from the way elements true to the text's time frame are retained to the penchant for having the actresses walk around on sky-high heels and in slips, to the use of contemporary incidental music, sound effects, and props like television sets. As in van Hove's most recent venture, Hedda Gabler, the play more or less begins even before everyone is seated -- with Masha (Rebecca Henderson), the middle sister, seemingly frozen in place with her arms wrapped around herself and facing a poster of Moscow, the play's symbolic unattainable dream.

To fully appreciate Mr. Liska's Sisters, audiences at CSC should come armed with some prior acquaintance with the play -- either having seen a more conventional staging or having read a traditional translation. Still, even those seeing this "cold" will be able to grasp what's happening. Purists will, of course, have fun finding things to pick at.

The four acts have titles that depict the trajectory from hope to resignation. Act one is called Irena's Birthday Party: "What's So Beautiful About it?"; Act two is called Carnival: "That's What Happiness Is. . .I Think."; Act three, The Fire: "I'm a Mess"; and act four, Goodbye Forever: "God I Hope It all Works Out".

After Irina's twentieth birthday party, most of which takes place off-stage, the characters introduce themselves one by one, sometimes via audience addressing monologues, often in group freeze frames. These stylized poses tend to bring out the laughs that figure importantly here -- I think much more so than Chekhov intended; and some -- like Masha's collapse and final agonized scream of despair -- are more effective than others.

With lots of people feeling trapped in dead-end jobs and marriages and spending much of their after work time as couch potatoes, it's not a big stretch to accept Andrey (Walker Lewis), the brilliant brother who has married Natasha (Karen Koontz), an uneducated local woman and become a minor civil servant, as a chip munching porno TV movie addict. The frequent sound of gunfire is a reminder of how wherever we are, the sounds of death and destruction are never far away. Natasha's being played by an African-American actress might be seen as a subtext beyond the by now common practice of multi-cultural casting. Chekhov has the sisters noting Natasha's outsider status by making fun of her unfashionable appearance, and in this instance the casting seems not to be quite as color-blind as is usual.

The actors, like the director, are at the beginning of their careers and quite competent. While each sister is supposed to express her rebellion and despair differently, these sisters do so at the expense of that sisterly unity that is all that's ultimately left to them.

The sister making the strongest impression is Rebecca Henderson's Masha. The ultra-petite Anne Gridley, who plays Irina, looks so young that when I first saw her I caught myself wondering if the director had added a child to the text. Gridley's size does facilitate the physicality in some of her scenes, but Anka Lupe's costumes do little to make this Irini's look less like a first or second year high school student. On the other hand, the little fur boa wrapped around Masha's neck is an apt symbol for this family's shrinking grandeur.

If the duel seems incongruous in this television age Three Sisters, I suppose it is no more so than a garbage pail making do as a flower garden or some of this production's other radical stylistic fillips. Whatever your reaction to this new-old Chekhov, it won't have you echo the sister's "bored, bored, bored" complaint. At $15 a ticket, no complaints either about overpriced theater.


Other Three Sisters productions reviewed at CurtainUp:
The Three Sisters (London Playhouse, 2003)
The Three Sisters (National--London 2003)3 1/2 hours
The Three Sisters (Studio-Theatre, 2002), another pared down, intermission-free version
The Three Sisters (Moscow Art Theater/BAM -1997)
The Three Sisters/Chekhov(Roundabout - 1997)
The Three Sisters (La Mama -1997)

Reviews of Ivo Van Hove plays mentioned:
More Stately MansionsHedda Gabler
Streetcar Named Desire

CurtainUp's Chekhov Backgrounder with quotes and links to other plays reviewed

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Pavol Liska
Cast: Amanda Boekelheide, Marc Dale, Anne Gridley, Rebecca Henderson, Karen Koontz, Walker Lewis, Fletcher Liegerot, Luisa Moreno, Zachary Oberzan, Mario Quesada
Set Design:Jian Jung
Costume Design: Anka Lupes
Lighting Design: Tim Cryan
Sound Design: Kristin Worral
TV Effectss: 31 Down
Running time: 90 Minutes without intermission
CSC, 136 East 13th Street, 212-677-4210. .
From 1/05/05 to 1/16/05; opening 1/09/05
Wed - Sat at 8pm, Sun at 7pm
Tickets: $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 8th press performance
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