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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

The Three Sisters, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s F.M.

Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. Through July

29. Tickets $18 to $41. 973-408-5600.

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