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Friday, 5 June 2009

Three Tender Sisters, One Superb Play

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Susan Coyne
Directed by Martha Henry
Featuring Dalal Badr, Kelli Fox, Lucy Peacock, Irene Pool, Tom McCamus

The Story: The three aristocratic Prozorov sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, feel trapped in their small provincial town and long for their brother Andrei to take them back to their beloved Moscow. When Andrei marries a local girl who slowly pushes them out of their own home, each sister falls into a mundane pattern of life that threatens to overwhelm their very souls.

One cannot accuse Chekhov of being too light-hearted, but we can praise Martha Henry for a deft, gentle touch with a play laden with existential angst. That is not to say the subject matter is not taken seriously, but rather that in her hands one of its dimensions is a layer of warmth that helps insulate the audience against the play’s inherent sorrow.

Every aspect of the production emphasizes this approach. The new adaptation by Susan Coyne mixes in contemporary phrases which invite the audience to chuckle more readily. The set (designed by John Pennoyer) is a cozy clutter of furniture, softly lit. Even in the second half, when the clutter is all moved upstage to evoke the sisters’ shrinking world, the red and brown-toned fabrics are snug and inviting. Composer Marc Desormeaux’s music opens with an echoing balalaika or mandolin amid swirling dappled lighting, like a dream of remembered Muscovite concerts, and then swiftly changes to a folk dance with a lighter tempo to suggest a rural town.

The actors themselves embody this warmth. Doctor Chebutykin may be a doddering, indifferent old man on paper, but James Blendick presents the doctor’s suffering in a way that allows the audience to both condemn and pity him. Peter Hutt plays Masha’s neglected husband Kulygin as both foolishly deluded and helplessly devoted – the way he holds and inhales the scent of his wife’s gloves is an almost-missed gem. Even the odd Solyony is a bit less scary as played by Juan Chioran, who establishes very early his attraction for Irina (albeit in a slightly creepy way), and gives Solyony an element of OCD that makes him less ridiculous. And as Baron Tuzenbach, a somewhat naïve man, Sean Arbuckle gives a compelling performance as he not only exudes optimism in his speech, but also hope, fear and longing in expression, even when death is staring him in the face.

Irene Poole gives a highly sympathetic portrayal as Olga, the eldest sister; one gets the feeling that her headaches are not only a result of her longing for “home”, but also as a result of carrying the burden of work and family responsibility – it is she who has the most run-ins with the usurping Natasha, played by Kelli Fox. Ms Fox gives Natasha all the peaches-and-cream sweetness of a gold-digger, with all the grace of a battleship, making her fun to hate as Andrei’s henpecking wife, played by a haunted-looking Gordon S. Miller.

Olga also protects and advises her sisters, played by Dalal Badr (Irina) and Lucy Peacock (Masha). Dalal Badr could be accused of holding back on us in the first half of the play: her Irina is sweet-tempered, idealistic and naïve, but strangely calm amid everyone else’s turmoil. It is not until the third act that Ms. Badr lets go – Irina’s strain, her panic, her misery all come pouring through, drawing the sisters closer together.

The warmth of the other characters turns up to a scorching heat with Lucy Peacock as Masha, and Tom McCamus as Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. As the two unhappily married characters find each other, their attraction is not only clear, it is electric. They have one love scene in which they barely touch, and another from opposite sides of the stage – it takes real masters to create that much erotic tension while still fully clothed. At their inevitable parting their anguish – particularly Masha’s - is so real, one can almost hear their hearts shatter.

Bleak as this sounds, these actresses create a tenderness in their losses, and this is best felt at the end of the play: their house no longer welcoming, Irina’s fiancée killed, and Masha’s lover gone, the sisters affirm each other and their will to go on – and they hold on to each other for dear, dear life.

Three Sisters is worth the cost of A+ seating, but bring tissues. It continues in repertory until October 3rd at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

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