Review of Jane Werger’s Production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters

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Published January 20th, 2014, in Trent’s Arthur Newspaper:

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The opening night of the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1900-1901) was a resounding success. I revisited Chekhov’s text and it appears that director Jane Werger has put together a play faithful to the tone and plot of the original. Her additions to Chekhov’s play were welcomed, including, among others, the clowns, who proved to be an amusing conclusion to the second act.

The story is a simple one: three sisters – Irina, 20, Masha, 26, and Olga, 28 – struggle with life as intellectual bourgeoisie in a provincial town. Like many of Chekhov’s short stories and plays, the characters long to escape, in this case, to Moscow where they can mingle with those of the same class. We watch the three sisters socialize, fall in love, and despise a few members of a military brigade. As in most of the author’s tales, the narrative arc does not end with a satisfying resolution or moral, unlike, for instance, Leo Tolstoy’s novellas. The sisters are left where we found them at the beginning, though more emotionally scarred from the entire goings on of the four years passed.

The highlights of the production are many, but mainly the mise-en-scène deserves the praise. The set seemed appropriate. A full range of props according to Chekhov’s direction were employed, save the choice to populate the stage with maples and birch trees against Chekhov’s use of firs.

The costumes were stunning. It took six months to prepare them and extensive research was conducted as to the dress of upper-class and military persons in Russia in the late nineteenth century. The beautiful dresses of the three sisters reflected their personalities: the white costumes of the youngest (and virginal); the browns and black of the melancholic middle sister; and the greys of the eldest whom is the only satisfactorily employed, and therefore professional and mature, of the bunch.

The blocking of the actors was the most technical aspect of the production. Arranging 13 actors at any one time is a feat for any director. In the first act Werger arranged a table downstage whereby most the players were eating and drinking; upstage we had the Baron and Irina, the former professing his love to the latter. To maintain the temporal logic of the narrative space, Werger adopted something of a freeze-frame in both social situations. The downstage actors would halt their movements, striking poses in motion like a nineteenth-century painting (the advertisement and cover of the playbill designed with these scenes in mind, the whole cast adopting poses similar to those just described); the upstage dialogue would then continue. This approach was used perfectly in this scene and was adopted again in the second act, this time with comedic effect as Kulygin asks not to be looked at, followed by alternate freezes of the other characters looking askance or gazing intently in his direction.

While these frozen-in-time moments were appreciated, some of the actors’ gestures and motions still required some practice. A reached-for hand was missed, at other moments a gesture seemed inappropriate or overdone. It was the opening show – I would expect the actors, through nightly repetitions, to strengthen their physical bonds and become more familiar with one another.

Much of the acting was superb and on point. The sisters, played by Hannah Bailay, Kate Suhr, and Sarah Tye, appeared to thoroughly understand their characters, and Bailey’s breakdown and tears in the third act was heart wrenching. Wyatt Lamoureux’s Vershinin clearly stole the show, his ramblings and flirtations with Masha both hilarious and convincing.

Where some exchanges fell short of comedic or emotional, other scenes made up for it. Elisaveta Fen calls the scene between the Baron and Irina, right before the former’s duel, perhaps the most “moving in the whole of modern drama.” In Werger’s production this was not so, proving instead to be a weak display of emotion. On the other hand, the Doctor and Andrei’s discussion about marriage and loneliness was likely the best exchange of the play.

There was a major fault with Mamet’s adaptation. At times it did not seem to do justice to the friendship and eventual confrontation between the Baron and Solyony. The latter should have appeared much more outrageous and his taunting of the Baron, “Cluck, cluck, cluck!”, much more pronounced.

Chekhov’s own apprehensions about his play, calling it “dreary, long, and awkward,” were felt by some members of the audience. But a criticism of its length is not warranted if fidelity is strived for – kudos to Werger for sticking to the play as formed by its author. Her production was a marvelous effort.

Three Sisters runs until February 1st. You can see the show Thursday to Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $18 for Adults, $16 for seniors and $10 for students. They are available by either phoning (705) 745-4211, or visiting the box office at 364 Rogers St., Peterborough on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday between the hours of 5:30 and 8pm. The box office will also be open one hour before curtain time on days of the performances.

See my review of Chekhov’s Lady with a Dog.

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