Theatre Review: MSU's "Three Sisters" (playing through Sept. 29)

Sunday, September 23, 2012, 9:46 am
By: 
Eliot Singer

"...more clouds of grey, than any Russian play could guarantee."

The Three Sisters may not alone have inspired that line from George and Ira Gershwin's "Not for Me"—The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya come to mind—but the melancholic Russian soul is never far from the surface. These are not three happy sisters, and none of their friends and relations are happy either, not even Chebutykin, the aging, philosophical and paternal, regimental doctor, played with great panache by Tyler Gotch in the MSU Theater Department production that continues through Saturday, September 29, at the Arena Theater.

Pulling off Chekov, so the darkness does not become depressing, while the moments of lightness—and there are many—do not detract from the theme of seeking meaning under deteriorating life circumstances, is a delicate balancing act, which director Rob Roznowski mostly accomplishes, within the limitations of a college production. Sets and costumes, designed by Shannon Melick and Karen Kangas-Preston, are of the period and effective (the ticket-takers wore period dress, as well, which was a nice touch), and  the translation by playwright, Lanford Wilson, seemed more lively, if probably taking more liberties, than the translation I remember reading in college or the performance I saw in a Pittsburgh warehouse theater some 35 years ago, not to mention the slightly risqué, original song, "Ladies of Moscow," by Brett Kline (Fedotik).

One of the improvements I've noticed with MSU Theater Department productions over the last couple of years has been the quality of the ensemble. It used to be there might be a few good actors, but the theater going experience was marred by too many weak performers in supporting roles. The entire cast of The Three Sisters is good, although the brother, Andrei, played by Travis Staton-Marrero, does not elicit much sympathy as a would-be intellectual displaced, along with his sisters, from Moscow to a provincial town, perhaps a directorial decision. A stronger Andrei would have made a better counterpoint to Natasha, his selfish, bitchy, slutty, wife, well played by Lydia Hiller.

Caught in the provinces, idealizing the Moscow from which they had been wrested eleven years before Act I and to which they long to return, none of the three sisters is what they hoped to be. Olga, the eldest, played stoically by Jacqueline Wheeler, only occasionally dreams of the married life she might have had. The youngest, Irina, played passionately if somewhat erratically (the name of the actor was not listed in the program), longs for love not just marriage.

But the key to any production of The Three Sisters is the somewhat jaded Masha, caught married to a good man she does not love, a variant of the favorite Russian female character-type, by 1901 allowed in Chekov's play to have the non-tragic affair snubbed by her prototype, Pushkin's Tatyana, in Eugene Onegin. It is hard to imagine an experienced actress playing the role any better than Jennifer Ridley, especially her facial expressions and physical presence—I found myself seeking her out on the stage even when others were in focus for speaking parts. I also liked that Roznowski chose not to weaken her character by overplaying her reaction to her forward-looking lover, Vershinin, convincingly played by Kirill Sheynerman, departing with his regiment, or her reconciliation with her husband, letting her regain her self through her sisters.

The theater in the round stage, despite its intimacy, does sometimes make it difficult to hear actors facing another direction, and bits of dialog were lost. The performance did not warrant an instantaneous standing ovation, like last year's Streetcar Named Desire opener, but that had a faculty ringer as Blanche Dubois. Still, The Three Sisters is one of the world's great plays, and this is a high quality college production well worth seeing.

For performance schedule and tickets, see MSU Theatre's page.

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