Friday, April 19, 2013

Three Sisters at The Cultch

Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters is a play I adore, and one I've taught many times (in various translations/adaptations by contemporary playwrights, for whom the task is almost a career rite of passage). But until last night I had not seen a live professional production. Mercifully, that gap in my theatre-going experience has been filled by director Jane Heyman and The Only Child Collective's moving staging of the play, on at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre's Vancity Culture Lab through this Saturday.

Full disclosure: Jane is a former PuSh Board colleague; her daughter, Jessie Johnston, who produced the show, is a current PuSh Board colleague; and I donated money to the wildly successful indiegogo campaign that Jessie has used to underwrite much of the production's costs. Not that mother or daughter would expect anything less than a full and honest critique.

One of the most amazing things about Three Sisters, written at the turn of the twentieth-century, is how contemporary it continues to feel. And I'm not just referring to the feelings of ennui, melancholia, and frustrated ambition afflicting Olga, Masha, and Irina, three beautiful, intelligent women suffocating in the provinces, forced into soulless marriages and mind-numbing jobs while the men around them--their brother Andrei included--continue to enjoy the entitlements of their gender. What over-educated female millennial facing the current job market--and perhaps the prospect of moving back in with her parents in the suburbs as a result--wouldn't be affected by this? But the freshness of the play has as much to do with Chekhov's structural and dramaturgical genius as with the universality of his themes. So, for example, the twin themes of love and work that remain dialectically entwined in the Prozorov sisters' minds as sources of aspirational longing and hopeless despair are consistently played out in scenes that juxtapose public "philosophizing" (to use Vershinin's term) about their possible and/or anticipated rewards with private self-recrimination about the much more pedestrian realities such fantasies belie.

Key in this regard is Act 3, set in the enclosed and cramped interior space of Olga and Irina's bedroom, following the fire that ravages much of the town. The entire cast tramps through the room at one point or another, symbolically trampling what remains of the sisters' dream to return to Moscow. In Heyman's staging, we witness all of this in quietly and affectively physical ways: in Irina's (Rachel Aberle) disgust at the grit and grime Dr. Chebutykin (Richard Newman) has left on the washcloth used to dry his hands; in an exhausted Olga's (Manami Hara) cradling of the aged servant Anfisa (Rosy Frier-Dryden); in Masha (Emma Slipp) greedily stealing kisses with Vershinin (Bob Frazer) while her husband Kulygin (David Bloom) dozes in the corner; and in Irina and Olga burying themselves under their bedclothes as Andrei (Alex Rose) tells them he has mortgaged the house to pay his gambling debts and that they need to be nicer to his interloping wife, Natasha (Adele Noronha).

My only complaint is that the exclusively stage left blocking of these scenes, combined with an awkwardly placed upstage screen, made it difficult to see much of the action. I get that Heyman was emphasizing how impossibly small the sisters' world has become, and that this serves as a visual contrast to the final act, set in the Prozorovs' garden, which ironically does not open out onto new vistas for any of the sisters. But sightlines in the tiny Culture Lab are already difficult enough. If you add a full house (a tough problem to have, I know), then for those sitting audience left as I was, for much of Act 3 you'll be craning your neck.

Oh yeah, one other thing: the actor playing Tuzenbach (Brahm Taylor) was far too handsome. Otherwise, this is a warm and wise production, with a skillfully updated text by Amiel Gladstone that sounds at once idiomatically contemporary to a 21st-century ear and faithful to Heyman's period staging. I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to spend such quality time with two of my favourite theatrical families: the Prozorovs and the Heyman-Johnstons.


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