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‘Three Sisters’ immerses audience in Chekhov’s world

Published: October 8, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


The plot of Anton Chekhov’s play “The Three Sister” consists of so many love affairs, power struggles and family drama that, on paper, it reads like a frothy soap opera. Yet, the Brandeis Theater Company’s adaptation, directed skillfully by Professor Adrianne Krstansky, is not a guilty pleasure, but a complex tale brought to life by a stellar ensemble cast.

A year after the death of their father, a general in the army, three sisters are in mourning in a grand house in the countryside. Olga, the eldest, is the responsible, almost matronly, sister who has the difficult task of being the moral head of her fractured family. Masha, the middle child, is passionate and somewhat bratty. She has the unfortunate fate of being married to a man whom she doesn’t love. The baby of the trio, Irina, is naive and desperate to be happy, bored with her new home and longing for a return to Moscow. She tries to make the best of her circumstances despite the many obstacles in her way.

The three sisters are the core of an intricate web of relationships. Surrounded by their brother and his new wife, servants, friends and lovers, these outside forces threaten to complicate or even rupture the sisters’ bond. Throughout the play it becomes clear that the sisters’ happiness and integrity depends on their loyalty to and love for one another.

One of the biggest challenges that any production of “The Three Sisters” faces is bringing to life Chekhov’s huge cast of characters. Fortunately, Brandeis achieves this with ease. The titular characters are three-dimensional and engaging. In fact, all three of the sisters are played by actors who contribute vibrant performances.

Tanya Dougherty commits to her role as Masha through her display of an impressive array of emotions. The first time the audience sees her she’s sullen and reading a book—in a bad mood, she stomps around and leaves the house in a huff. It’s easy to dislike her, but through Dougherty’s skill at portraying a range of feeling, the audience gets a clue to the pain she’s experiencing. In one scene Masha scolds her friend Chebutykin for drinking in, what at first seems to be, an irrational act of petulance (she’s the one who gets drunk, not Chebutykin). But through the expression in the actor’s eyes and the way she plops down next to her husband, the audience is treated to a glimpse of that character’s interior life. She’s depressed and angry. While Dougherty’s performance sometimes toes the line of the melodramatic, for the most part, she has created a relatable and human character. When Masha falls in love with another man, the audience roots for her because it gives her a chance at happiness.

Samantha Richert as Irina gives just as impressive a performance, although her take on the youngest sister is more subtle. Her greatest achievement is her fluidity. Irina is torn between two men and different ways of approaching her life and Richert displays this through a mien of confusion. The audience doesn’t know what or who she’ll choose because the character herself doesn’t know. Olga (Renana Gal) was the least fleshed-out major character, nevertheless, she had several touching scenes. After witnessing the heartless actions of her sister-in-law, she sinks to the floor and picks up clothes that had been scattered there, holding a bunch to her chest.

The play also features many minor, though vital characters. Thus, the success of the play hinges on the chemistry of the cast. BTC presents a colorful ensemble by emphasizing the relationships of the characters and their interactions with one another. In the first act it is Irina’s 20th birthday party and, as more and more guests arrive, the scene becomes increasingly chaotic. Yet, the actors never break character, it is a carefully orchestrated chaos. A soldier gives Irina a gift; the Baron, in love with Irina, shoots him a suspicious glance; Andrey, their brother, sits hunched clearly annoyed by his boisterous family; and Natasha, Andrey’s fiancé, becomes panicked. All the characters are doing something. The only bad thing about all of this activity is that there is always the feeling that something is being missed.

All of this action takes place on a gorgeous set with elaborate rugs, a laden dining table, a toy piano and a screen to indicate the action occurring outside. The passage of time is also cleverly depicted with various visual cues. There’s fog, paper leaves and fake snow on the shoulders of coats and jackets.

“The Three Sisters” is a tale about grief punctuated by brief moments of humor, lust and petty squabbles. There are so many fantastic performances, stage directions and storylines that the play is almost overwhelming. Brandeis Theater Company has put on a production that immerses its audience into the lives of its characters and it should be watched at least once, if not a second or even third time to fully absorb its vibrant world.