Thursday, April 14, 2011

"The Three Sisters": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Irina (Heather Wood), in white, stands dreamily at the upstairs window; Masha (Natalia Payne), in mourner's black, sits in her chair staring at her knitting; and Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), in blue, paces back and forth holding her notebook. From this opening scene we understand the glue which holds Anton Chekhov's drama together: sisterhood. Life may not turn out like we planned it, but we will always have each other.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl has taken a literal translation by Elise Thoron, with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, and developed a new, more literal interpretation of Three Sisters. Those who know Chekhov in and out (which is to say, every theater major around the world) may notice Director Les Waters's somewhat lighter hand, but what most will appreciate is Chekhov's timeless cadences, eternal Slavic angst and the inward discoveries each character is forced to make.

The men - especially Officer Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie), Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) and brother Andrei (Alex Moggridge) serve as foils for the women, while the excellent Natasha (Emily Kitchens, who was so good in A.C.T.'s Clybourne Park), tall, gangly and hopelessly out of style, helps us appreciate the personal dilemmas of Irina, Masha and Olga. You can't say too much for Scenic Designer Annie Smart, who has built us a house we could all live in, as long as we got to wear Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi's Russian army uniforms and/or floor-length gowns.

Bear in mind that this is Chekhov: it's long, a full three hours with one intermission, and Act Two tends to stretch on a bit, seeing as we have already identified the bad guy far in advance and can see exactly how the story is destined to play out. Perhaps in 1902, when The Three Sisters premiered, the story could keep audiences on the edge of their seats, but by 2011 we have seen too many horror movies. "Dance, you fools! Don't do the duel!" we shout, but...nyet. No luck.

So you make an investment of time, but one that pays off handsomely. Chekhov is beloved because he makes you laugh, he insists that you think about your own life and he gives you the gift of a window into a long ago world in a faraway empire. Irina is right: we will all be dissolved by light, but before that we can hold our sisters' hands and dream of a better day.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Three Sisters" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The actors, set and story earn one star each, while the BANGLE is given for especially noteworthy performances by Ryan, Kitchens and each of the three long-suffering, endlessly-wintering, never-getting-back-to-Moscow sisters.

"The Three Sisters"
Berkeley Repertory Company
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 22

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