While Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters is sometimes thought of as a comedy, there is no way to keep it from seeming heavy due to its tragicomic overtones. However, director Will Pomerantz’s new adaptation makes it as lively and light as it can possibly be given that it is about middle-class characters in Russia at the turn-of-the-last century who are beset by demoralizing disappointments and long held hopes and aspirations that fail to come about. It is the sort of play in which nothing much happens yet life goes on and everything happens: marriages, love affairs, births, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays and tragedies. Chekhov who began his career as a country doctor was a master at revealing the depths of the human soul.
The new adaptation is lucid, straightforward and accessible making this a fine introduction to Chekhov’s play for those who do not know it as well as an excellent ensemble production for those that do. Pomerantz has somewhat streamlined the play by eliminating three minor characters and assigning their lines to others. He has also broken up the acts into shorter scenes which will bother purists but makes the play easier to digest. Staged as part of Blueprint Productions’ Chekhov + Turgenev mini-festival, performed in repertory with About Love, Pomerantz’s retitled adaptation of Turgenev’s novella First Love, the two productions use three of the same actors and live musical scores by composer Nancy Harrow, a longtime collaborator of Pomerantz.
The play begins one year after the death of General Prozorov, the father of sisters Olga, Masha and Irina and brother Andrei. The Prozorovs moved to this provincial town 11 years ago from Moscow and their dearest wish is to return to the capital where life is more interesting. The first scene takes place on the occasion of the 20th birthday of the youngest sister Irina who has two suitors with whom she is not in love, both soldiers in the battalion that is stationed in town. Oldest sister Olga teaches at the local high school, and middle sister Masha is bored by her marriage to Kulygin, a rather academic and dull Latin teacher. On this occasion, the new battery commander, Colonel Vershinin, arrives to introduce himself, having known them as children in Moscow, and he and Masha develop a ill-starred passion for each other, both being married to others. On this day, Andrei proposes to his local girlfriend Natasha whom none of his sisters can stand due to her awkwardness and social climbing.
In the following three scenes which take place over the next few years, Natasha and Andrei marry, have children, and she drives the sisters out of their family home. First taking a series of boring jobs, Irina becomes engaged without love but looks forward to her new life. Olga rejects and then accepts the promotion to headmistress and takes elderly retainer Anfisa with her to town to save her from being sent away by Natasha who finds her useless. The battalion is finally shipped away to places unknown and things go back to the way things were before – but nothing will ever be the same.
The cast is animated and spirited keeping the level of the acting lively throughout. Elizabeth Ramos as Olga is a rock for the others, tired from her long days at work but always able to cope with the events of her busy schedule. Amanda Kristin Nichols conveys her boredom with her life and her husband without becoming tiresome about it. Essence Brown’s Irina remains particularly cheerful and vigorous although life does not deal her the hand she had hoped for. As their brother Andrei, Miles G. Jackson makes a virtue of weakness as he allows his wife to walk all over him and squanders his money at the gambling table.
Pomerantz has allowed Silvia Bond’s Natasha to be a little less vulgar and crass than Natasha usually is but while more sympathetic she remains unpleasant. As Colonel Vershinin, saddled with an unhappy marriage, Nehal Joshi is charming while also being a hopeless romantic. Tom Patterson makes Irina’s suitor Baron Tuzenbach an understanding and compassionate officer, while Harrison Bryan as his rival Captain Solyony is a disagreeable social misfit who appears to be in need of friends and advice. John Ahlin as the alcoholic Dr. Chebutykin, a retired army doctor, who loved the sisters’ mother, is amusing as a figure of fun. As the pedantic schoolmaster who assumes everyone will understand his Latin quotations, Tommy Schrider makes dullness a glowing quality. Jean Tafler as the elderly servant Anfisa, long in the family, captures the aging retainer in her walk and stance.
While Brian Staton makes a poor choice of only suggesting the dining room (used in the first two scenes) off to the side of the stage, the rest of his three settings for this Russian villa and garden are perfectly suitable. Whitney Locher’s elegant costumes are pitch-perfect defining character and recreate their 1900 era. Unfortunately, Allen Hahn’s lighting is not as moody as it might be given that the play takes place at four different times of day. Harrow’s lovely, melancholy music is played by Misha Josephs on guitar, Frederika Krier on violin, and Jared Engel on bass.
While this is not an in-depth interpretation and at times seems a bit superficial, Will Pomerantz’s production of Three Sisters is a true ensemble making it appear that these people have lived together for years. His new adaptation in contemporary idiom is easy on the ears and easy to comprehend. The pacing of the production is always on the move which is saying a good deal when it comes to Three Sisters which is often performed in a glacial style to mirror the characters’ boredom and disappointments. Here the characters complain about their fate but get on with their lives.
Chekhov + Turgenev
Three Sisters (in repertory with Turgenev’s About Love through June 5, 2022)
The Frank Shiner Theater at The Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street, at the corner of Elizabeth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.SheenCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission