OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW OF THREE SISTERS
Reviewed by Ron S. Covar
MOSCOW STATE OF MIND
Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach
Or to Hollywood
But I’m taking a train
On the Trans-Siberian Railways
I‘m in a Moscow state of mind
With apologies to Billy Joel, this might as well have been the anthem of Olga, Masha and Irina, better known as Anton Chekhov’s ill-fated Prozorov sisters in Classic Stage Company’s second offering for its 2010-2011 season, following its critically-acclaimed staging of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando.
Widely-believed to have been based on the Bronte sisters, Chekhov’s Three Sisters tells the heartbreaking story of three educated and cultured women’s desperate search for happiness and fulfillment amidst their miserable lives in a small provincial town “where education is as unnecessary as an extra finger” and where people merely “eat, drink, sleep and die”.
The play opens as the youngest of the sisters, Irina (Juliet Rylance), is about to celebrate her 20th birthday which coincides with their father’s first death anniversary. As birthday well-wishers start to gather at the Prozorov residence for lunch, the eldest of the sisters, Olga (Jessica Hecht), serves the audience with hors d’oeuvres of expository tidbits. From the outset, it is immediately made known that the three sisters have been pining for one thing: to go back to Moscow where they were educated and raised. Throughout the play, this singular desire keeps the narrative together. Among the three sisters, it is Irina who is most vocal and obsessive about going back to Moscow where she believes she will find her true love. Later, when she realizes that she will never ever get to Moscow, she reluctantly accepts the marriage proposal of Baron Tuzenbach (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who promises to bring her to Moscow.
However, it is not only the sisters who dream of going back to Moscow. Their only brother, Andrey (Josh Hamilton), also dreams of being a science professor in Moscow instead of being a mere secretary (and later, a member) of the county council which is being presided by his wife’s lover.
Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the middle sister who got married at eighteen after having been impressed by Kulygin (Paul Lazar as Masha’s cuckolded professor-husband who eventually forgives her for her indiscretion), seems to have later found her own Moscow in the person of Vershinin (Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard), an unhappily married military officer from Moscow who leads the soldiers in a nearby post. Having been instantly mesmerized by Vershinin even before Irina’s birthday lunch is served, Masha later confesses to her two sisters that she has fallen in love with everything about Vershinin (his voice, his two children, even his problems).
As in other Chekhov plays, Three Sisters consists of a huge cast, not even counting the offstage characters which were mentioned and/or spoken to but never seen at all. However, the large ensemble’s performance is generally uneven. With an Academy award nomination and critically-acclaimed movie performances to her credit, Maggie Gyllenhaal lacks passion on stage. Her breakdown scene towards the play’s conclusion when Vershinin leaves her does not come out as moving as expected. Despite Juliet Rylance’s vibrant and youthful Irina plus her uncanny ability to shed tears at the least provocation, she fails to command the sympathy that her character requires. It is Jessica Hecht’s restrained performance which provides the most poignant scenes in the play.
Natasha’s (Marin Ireland) transformation from the insecure and socially-inept woman into Andrey’s domineering and two-timing wife, who eventually takes over the Prozorov household, should have been a delicious role to play but Ireland wastes this opportunity with her one-dimensional interpretation. Instead of evoking power and fear, her presence merely brings about annoyance.
While Peter Sarsgaard’s underacting may be highly effective on films, such technique appears less successful when transported on stage.
Director Austin Pendleton’s staging provides some nice touches though, notably the two scenes when soldier-cum-photographer Fedotik (James Patrick Nelson) takes his photographs, with the extra shot in each scene hinting at the evolving relationships among the characters.
Chekhov telegraphs succeeding scenes in this play with a liberal dose of foreshadowing, oftentimes verbalized by the characters. Irina’s ardent admirer, Solyony (Anson Mount), declares: “I swear to you, any rival in my place, I will kill.” True enough, Solyony eventually kills Irina’s fiancé, Baron Tuzenbach. In another scene, Vershinin hints at the play’s conclusion when he declares: “We can never be happy. We can only want to be happy.”
The production’s technical elements are rendered as inconspicuous as possible. Walt Spangler designed the stage to the barest essentials, consisting mainly of a platform which alternately serves as a humongous dining table, an elevated bedroom and (perhaps, unintentionally) a garden junk, within the play’s three-hour running time. Lighting (Keith Parham) and music/sound (Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery) are likewise kept subtle. The actors look comfortable in Marco Piemontese’s no-frill costumes which complement the production.
In the end, Olga’s yearning to return to Moscow forever remains a dream as she is now tied up with her job after reluctantly accepting the position of permanent headmistress in her school. On the other hand, disillusioned Masha is rejected by Vershinin which dims her escape from her loveless marriage. Irina may likewise seem to have lost her chance at moving back to Moscow after Solyony kills her knight-in-shining-armor, Baron Tuzenbach, in a duel. However, such temporary setback does not seem to faze Irina as she declares in the end, “Tomorrow, I will leave on my own.” Despite some rays of hope for this new beginning for the three sisters, they are in no way happier than at the beginning of the play. It is only Natasha, Kulygin, Anfisa (Roberta Maxwell as the old family nanny who is thrown out of the Prozorov’s home by the villainous Natasha) and Chebutykin (Louis Zorich as the omnipresent doctor who harbored deep affection for the sisters’ mother) who end up contented with their lives.
A true ensemble piece, all characters have their moments in this play, including local council watchman Ferapont (George Morfogen) and soldier Rohde (Gabe Bettio).
Under the helm of multi-talented actor, playwright and director, Austin Pendleton, Chekhov’s masterpiece did not blow the audience’s mind. One expects much more from the highly-accomplished Pendleton who has probably found his own Moscow some years ago when he won a Tony nomination for directing Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes.
Well, as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s daring character says repeatedly in Three Sisters, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
Click here to buy group tickets.