Corrections or additions?
This review was prepared for the July 18 online edition of U.S. 1
Newspaper, www.princetoninfo.com. All rights reserved.
Review: "The Three Sisters"
by Simon Saltzman
Bring up the subject of the (first) Russian revolution
among theater people, and you are most likely to talk about the impact
made by Anton Chekhov on the world than you are about the effect of
overthrowing the czar. Preceding the cataclysmic political events of
1917 by a generation, this reportedly gentle, loving sweet-tempered,
but sickly physician ironically set in motion, through the vehicle of
his subsequent canon of dramatic literature, a new respect for the
reality of life. All doom and gloom, darkness and despair — that’s
Chekhov. Right? Wrong. At its most sublime, "The Three Sisters" simply
defies the label comedy or tragedy.
While Chekhov speaks to us through the anguish of Masha, Olga, and
Irina about the destiny of enervated classes who do not have the
courage to actively pursue their dreams, it is through the actors that
we must see and share the alternating highs and lows of a
particularized and profoundly foolish humanity. All this without
losing the universality of their souls.
Above all, those hapless lives, no matter how adrift, must be lived.
In a staging that coincides with the 100th anniversary of the first
production of "The Three Sisters," we are privileged to see a lot of
living going on. In New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s artistic
director Bonnie J. Monte’s sensitive and vibrant consideration of the
play, that many consider to be among the ten greatest ever written,
one can immediately sense the smothering atmosphere this remote
Russian garrison town has on the last remaining aristocrats. This is
helped immeasurably by the darkly expressionistic settings created
designer Harry Feiner, enhanced by Steven Rosen’s moody lighting.
The pulse and rhythm of a Russia marking time before a new age is not
easy to convey. Monte must have decided somewhere along the way that
she was not going to ignore the provocatively enlivening and humorous
subtext of the play. But neither would this approach alter the play’s
brooding veneer. Oh, those long-suffering sisters of stultifying Old
Russia. And how easy it is to fall into the very traps that Chekhov
has helped them avoid. Mercifully, Monte doesn’t.
What are we to make of the silent frustrations that bond the Sisters
Prozorov and their hesitant guests. A unified ensemble has achieved a
rare thing, by reaching out beyond the grimness to bring their
characters fully alive. We are as amused and haunted by their
indulgent behavior as they in turn appear to be ironically and
bemusedly aware of their own state of personal dullness. Don’t be
misled into thinking that a play about three sisters pining away the
days while fantasizing about returning to Moscow is dull doings. Masha
(Laila Robins) married to a naive high school teacher, is having a
passionate dalliance with a married army colonel (Joseph Siravo).
Watching Robins, as she seesawed between passion and pain, boredom and
ecstasy, provides the kind of exhilarating and largely interior
emotional ride that one cannot easily forget. It establishes Robins,
who previously emoted meaningfully in Monte’s staging of "The Sea
Gull," as one of the finer interpreters of Masha.
At their most sublime, the perpetually tormented sisters can be seen
as wallowing almost ecstatically in their self-absorption. What we are
free of in this artful production is any flat, weakly motivated
attitudinizing that so often comes with the territory. This is
particularly evident in the blissfully desperate anxieties projected
by Caralyn Kozlowski as the youthful Irina, who is relentlessly
pursued by an ardent and unattractive (to her), baron (Remy
Auberjonois). As an aside, let me say that Auberjonois, who is making
his Festival debut, is a rather cool looking guy. Kozlowski, a "pretty
white bird" indeed, will surely break your heart as she contemplates a
life of loneliness or marriage to a man she doesn’t love.
Olga (Angela Reed), a bitter school teacher, who dreams of going to
Moscow as an escape from her provincial and petty life, has spent her
life waiting to jump into the arms of any man who asks. Reed, who is
making her debut at the Festival, is an extraordinary presence and
wears her frustrations and resentfulness as a badge. The household is
visibly shaken when Andrei (Paul Mullins), the self-centered brother,
marries Natasha, a shrewd and cunning peasant girl (Lisa Kay Powers),
and moves into the family home he has just mortgaged without his
sisters’ consent to pay gambling debts. Both Mullins approach to
Andrei and Powers to Natasha are stunning and unsettling within
the confines of their selfish and self-centered designs.
The cast has found bountiful opportunities for the kind of comedy that
underscore the ironies of Chekhov’s idealism and proselytizing. There
is, in particular, a wonderful balance between the wacky, contemporary
unstableness of Masha, the stifled sniveling of Olga and the
bewildered insecurity of Irina. Costumer Molly Reynolds has responded
with gowns that adoringly reflect the three personalities.
The nerdish innocence of James Michael Reilly’s high school teacher,
the self-deluding arrogance of Mullins’ misguided brother, the
beautiful calculating presence of Powers, as his wife, Edmond Genest’s
disillusioned doctor, Jeffrey M. Bender’s psychopathic soldier, Kathy
Mattingly’s useless old nurse and, of course, the three (memorable)
sisters all help us willingly spend three extraordinary hours in a
world of passion and pessimism.
From the frenetic dining room scene that opens the play, to the
super-charged emotionalism during the great fire, right up to the
somewhat enervating but touching final scene, there is a genuinely
exciting theatricality to be found in Monte’s production, perhaps her
most fully realized to date.
— Simon Saltzman
Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. Through July
29. Tickets $18 to $41. 973-408-5600.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.