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Three Sisters

By Rosalind Friedman

I often wonder: Suppose we could begin life over again, knowing what we were doing? Suppose we could use one life, already ended, as a sort of rough draft for another? . . .What seems to us serious, significant and important, will, in future times, be forgotten or won't seem important at all. — Vershunin

The award winning playwright Sarah Ruhl's new version of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, directed by Les Waters, is uneven and does not hold as many surprises as expected. Ruhl, who does not know Russian, relied on Elise Thoron's literal translation, and the help of Natalya Paramonova (her sister-in-law) and Kristen Johnsen-Neshat.

While unique staging such as falling apples, elevator floods and flying fish are hallmarks of plays such as The Clean House, Eurydice and Passion Play, Ruhl has opted to tell this classic story in a traditional way. This is a massively complicated piece, over three hours long. We must be grateful that the plot remains in tact and that the wonderful characters remain recognizable, even though there are now jarring expletives scattered throughout.

A dark, strong, wood-trimmed, textured set designed by Annie Smart, smokily lit by Alexander Nichols, consisting of a very large living and dining room topped by a layer of birch trees, provides the ambiance of 1900 Russia. Some of Ilona Somogyi's costumes for the fourteen-member cast are splendid, some rather strange.

The performances of the three sisters are excellent, starting with the celebration of Irina's 20th birthday which also marks the end of their year of mourning for their father. Wendy Rich Stetson is authoritative but compassionate as shoolteacher Olga. Heather Wood is a lovely Irina and Natalie Payne a brooding, short-tempered Masha. They are united in their dreaming of selling the house they live and and returning to Moscow, the birthplace where they are sure they will find the intellectual and artistic life they are missing.

An amusing Keith Reddin plays Masha's husband Kulygin, the much older professor who borers her. Bruce McKenzie portrays the philosophizing soldier Vershinin she has an affair with subtly but without majesty. This corporal, while always alluding to his wife's suicide attempts and their two young daughters, asks the most important questions: "Who will remember us when we are dead? What will life be like in the future?"

The most compelling scenes are when Vershinin and his unit are leaving and Masha clings to him weeping uncontrollably; and when Irina learns that her fiance, the persistent Tuzenbach — a very agreeable Thomas Jay Ryan — has been killed in a duel by the fiesty Solyony (Sam Breslin Wright), insists that she will devote herself to work.

Alex Moggridge as the sister's brother Andrei is magnetic and interesting to watch as he develops from a shy musician to a henpecked husband and father who hates his job. Equally remarkable is Emily Kitchens as his outrageously obnoxious wife Natasha who becomes the dictatorial empress of the house the sisters can't sell because Andrei not they, owns it.

Chekhov intended this as a comedy, but there is little here that is humorous. Still we can never forget those three sisters languishing in the provinces.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
A New Version by Sarah Ruhl
Based on a Literal Translation by Elise Theron with Natalya Paramonova and Kristen Johnsen-Neshati
Directed by Les Waters
Cast: (in order of speaking) Wendy Rich Stetson (Olga), Heather Wood (Irina), James Carpenter (Chebutykin), Thomas Jay Ryan (Tuzenbach), Sam Breslin Wright (Solyony), Natalia Payne (Masha), Barbara Oliver (Anfisa), Richard Farrell (Ferapont), Bruce McKenzie (Vershinin), Alex Moggridge (Andrei), Keith Reddin (Kulygin), Emily Kitchens (Natasha), Brian Wiles (Fedotik), Josiah Bania (Rode)
Scenic Designer: Annie Smart
Costumes: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting: Alexander V. Nichols
Sound: David Budries
Dramaturg: Rachel Steinberg
Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski
Running Time: 3 hours and ten minutes with one intermission
Yale Repertory Theatre/ University Theatre 222 York St.
New Haven, Ct. 06520-8294 Box Office: 203-432-1234
In a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre
From 8/16 to 10/8/2011
Reviewed by Rosalind Friedman 9/22/11

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