ArtsEmerson's "Three Sisters": Sibling Ribaldry

The Cast of "The Three Sisters"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

Now visiting the Majestic Theater as part of ArtsEmerson's multicultural theatrical season are members of the renowned Maly Theater of St. Petersburg, Russia, presenting Anton Chekhov's masterpiece, The Three Sisters.  Performed in Russian with English surtitles, it's a somewhat unorthodox version, filled with ribald passion and humor, unlike the usual treatment of the play as more restrained and static. This family and its circle of friends tend more towards unsuppressed emotions, from joy to rage, as described by the company's Artistic Director Lev Dodin. It's definitely not your typical treatment done in your college days with nothing but simmering angst. There are some tweaks that will surprise and possibly delight those familiar with the more classical approach to this play, though the plot remains mostly faithful to the playwright's original intent. His varied characters, as Dodin has stated, are “maximalists” who seek not merely a taste of happiness. but absolute happiness, and now rather than later. So it's not perhaps so shocking to find the ensemble full of various passions, from social and ideological to intellectual and, especially, sexual. There are several unscripted (by Chekhov, that is) physical couplings and clinches. If you're a purist, this won't be your samovar.

The titular three sisters are: Olga (Irina Tychinina), the eldest, a spinster who teaches in the high school; middle sister Masha (Ksenia Rappoport), a trained concert pianist; and the youngest, Irina (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). All former Muscovites, they share ownership of their home in a provincial town with their brother Andrey Prosorov (Alexander Bikovsky), an unlucky gambler. They all long for the relatively more exciting life they led in Moscow eleven years before the play begins. Here they interact with Andrey's controlling fiancee, and later wife, Natasha (Ekaterina Kleopina), Masha's husband, idealistic high school teacher Kuligin (Sergey Vlasov), and various military men presently stationed nearby. The soldiers include Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin, (Igor Chernevich) who is having an affair with Masha, and the Baron Tuzenbach (Oleg Ryazanzev), who loves Irina, as do Captain Soleni (Stanislav Nikolskiy) and Sub-Lieutenant Fedotik (Artur Kozin). For someone who is self-described as being old at 24, Irina evokes a lot of local interest. There is also Army Doctor Chebutikin (Sergey Kuryshev), who long ago loved the late mother of the three sisters, and Sub-Lieutenant Rode (Evgeny Serzin), a coach at the high school. Also in the daily life of the family are old Ferapont, doorkeeper at the local council offices (Alexander Koshkarev), and their old nurse Anfisa (Natalia Akimova).  By play's end, some have been reconciled, some have been driven apart, and one has been killed. Much has changed, much remains the same. And what could have been a melancholic, dour drama has somehow flown by over the course of four acts and three hours (about an hour per sister).

It's a testament to this company that they accomplish precisely what they set out to do. As Directed by Dodin, the entire ensemble demonstrates just how comic the work is (or can be). The Sisters and their family are wonderful, and the acting of the soldiers is uniformly good. On the creative end, the Set and Costume Design by Alexander Borovsky and Lighting Design by Damir Ismagilov are accomplished, but the way the set is employed is problematic. The country house facade requires that a lot of action take place far from the proscenium, and forces the characters to be set apart from one another in a static tableau, even as their acting remains fluid; it's distracting and literally distancing. Still, it's an opportunity to see a stellar ensemble in a vivid performance of one of the classics of theater in a uniquely comedic approach. While Chekhov was hardly the Neil Simon of his day, this version manages to succeed at being what Chekhov himself considered it: a comedy. This is a sorority well worth visiting.

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