Chekhov is a challenge for even the most experienced and skilled artists of our profession. It is not merely that his characters are the most psychologically dense in drama (which they are), or that his plays have very little action (which they do), or that after more than a century of productions no one has quite determined if his plays work best as comedies or tragedies, something in between, or something beyond either (which they could). It is that Chekhov’s own dialogue seems to confound any moment of lucidity, any attempt at interpretation itself. His characters in Three Sisters know pain, for sure (lost parents, suicidal spouses, a village on fire). They know frustrated longing (for love, for hope, for a new life). Yet they seem to wail and pontificate endlessly about their pain, to ultimately crave nothing more than to be validated as suffering people. So the artists engaging with such palpable material, and the audience responding to its execution, are often left uncertain as to whether to nod in sympathy or shake their heads in judgement, indeed to laugh or cry at the spectacle of pain and longing mixed with irony and self-aggrandizement.
Donald Hicken’s adaptation of the play doesn’t fear the ambiguities in the language, nor the conflicted nature of the characters. The production design is effective overall, with Hicken and Sally Boyett (ASC’s Artistic Director) providing set and costume design. There is a beautiful screen background that serves to demonstrate both the wealth of the family and act as a metaphor for the outside world. The furniture and costumes are aptly chosen, drawing the audience into a world of old Russian landholders and officers (high collars, petticoats, and gold buttons) while also establishing character. A standout is Chelsea Mayo’s costumes as Irina, which suggest she dresses herself for another life, as she reclines on her chaise staring out the window dreaming of what she will never have. Though for some reason, the general wash is uneven and dark lines cut across actors’ faces, distracting from some particularly intimate scenes, Adam Mendelson’s lighting work includes just the right clever lighting tricks (the fire in the distance and Anfisa burning the sconces on the wall are particularly noteworthy).
The 11-person cast, which is an almost even split between ASC residents (two of which are Equity) and guest actors, demonstrate the technical perfection, clear articulation, and vitality of true professionals. There is not a miscast player in the group; all bring qualities to the stage that match their roles with precision, from Teresa Spencer’s hardened frailty as Olga or Brenden Edward Kennedy’s exuberant sensitivity as Kulygin.The most engaging performances for me come from Olivia Ercolano as Masha and Tony Tsendeas as the patriarch of the family.
There are some shortcomings, as there often are in executing such as challenging piece of theatre. The performance pacing is slower than it should be and some of the longer speeches sound like rehearsed orations rather than immediate interactions with themselves and the world. Tsendeas’s drunken rant is a notable exception, however, as the actor flawlessly sails through regret and self-hate.
Ultimately, Hicken’s clever bits (moments where laundry overloads an actor or a kiss is avoided to humorous humiliation), the ironies in the text, and the consummate professionalism of this established company, make this a production well-worth seeing.
Running Time: 2 hour and 40 minutes, with 15-minute intermission.
Three Sisters plays through February 21, 2016 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111 – 111 Chinquapin Round Road, in Annapolis MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.