Playmakers Rep's "Three Sisters"

In their ads read during the local morning NPR news, Playmakers Rep touted its “new take” on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. What on earth does that meaningless phrase mean? This is my third production of Three Sisters and it didn’t look anything like some of the wilder Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Chekhov plays are so rooted to their time and place that they resist overmuch tampering.

Is it a "new take" because it was a new idiomatic translation? Or color-blind casting (two of the principal actors are African-American)?

The new translation by Libby Appel seemed fine, though with too many Americanized phrases for my ear. Appel translates “I don’t understand you” as “I don’t get it.” Yes, it’s shorter, more colloquial–but it jars my ear. Some phrases also struck me as clichés that would have been stripped from any other play. (Had I gone with the intention of writing a review, I’d have taken notes!)

Vivienne Benesch’s direction orchestrated some fine moments, though I think the size and spread of PRC’s thrust stage, with audiences on three sides, worked against the production and the play.

Chekhov charts the sisters’ descent from their height in Act 1, where they are clearly the center of attention and in charge of the household, until they are slowly squeezed into a small bedroom under the eaves, and then finally ejected by the domineering sister-in-law whose vulgarity they had earlier sneered at.

The creeping claustrophobia of the home is echoed by the smothering provinciality of their small town. The sisters early on deride the town’s small-minded pettiness and lack of culture. “To Moscow, to Moscow” is their prayer, their plaint, their lament.

Yet the stage, though cleverly redressed for the major scene changes, never emphasized their increasingly crowded and shrinking horizons. Olga and Irina’s bedroom should be a tiny thing, and though small enough on the PRC stage, there seems to be a whole other space alongside it where they and their uninvited guests can wander freely, talk, lie down, and scream. The sheer size of the stage undercut the play’s intimacy.

The performances were good, but not uniformly so. Daniel Pearce’s Kulygin always commanded my attention when he walked onstage, and Carey Cox’s Natalya was quite strong.

For me, the standout performances were Allison Altman’s Irina–particularly her sad and shocking breakdown as she realizes she will not escape to Moscow–and Arielle Yoder’s Masha, whose cool demeanor hides a seething anger and yearning. Marinda Anderson’s Olga was firm and supportive–the tone-setter in the opening minutes and the solid emotional anchor in the final minutes–but isn’t given the opportunity to tear into her own longings and desires. One moment of Anderson’s I loved: her shock and uneasiness at Natasha’s barking mad frustration with the old nurse.

In the last scene, as the sisters stand in the back yard of their former home, Olga hears the marching music of the soldiers leaving the town. She hopes that the sisters will soon learn “why we are alive and why we suffer.” As she said this, I think all three sisters turned outward to look at the audience, as if to say–We’re suffering so you can learn and remember. I’m not sure if I’m remembering or interpreting that moment correctly; it simply struck me as odd for the sisters to turn their backs to each other at a moment when they should be reaching toward each other and thereby finding their purpose.

Three Sisters was a fine but not a great production, with moments of exquisitely etched agony and loss, but it did not strike me as a new take.