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Three Sisters (Review)

Ruhl's and Doyle's spin on Chekhov play will challenge audiences

By Rick Pender · November 2nd, 2009 · Onstage

When a director pushes boundaries, great things can happen. That’s certainly what John Doyle’s staging of Three Sisters has tried to do.

A high-profile venture for the Cincinnati Playhouse’s 50th anniversary, Doyle’s production uses a new, very colloquial version of Anton Chekhov’s play by the much-admired writer Sarah Ruhl and a team of Tony Award winners and nominees. Doyle has made a name for himself with musicals, including the 2006 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Cincinnati Playhouse, which moved to Broadway and won a Tony.

[Read my interview with Doyle and Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern about Three Sisters here.] 

For his first non-musical in the U.S., Doyle has made Chekhov’s classic play of ennui and frustration into something wholly new. There’s much to praise about this production, but I’m guessing most audiences will react to it with ennui and frustration.

We don’t see much Chekhov locally (although Cincinnati Shakespeare has recently presented The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull), so our eyes and ears aren't readily attuned to the welter of characters, emotions, opinions and attitudes. Doyle’s production helps us sort the discontent felt by the sisters, fretful Olga (Alma Cuervo), unhappy Masha (Laila Robins) and idealistic Irina (Hannah Cabell), transported by their father’s military career to a rural Russian town, bereft of culture and stimulation.

Although father has died, they’re still mired in a community they yearn to leave behind for the attractions of Moscow. We especially follow Irina’s arc from inexplicable joy in Act I to palpable sadness at play’s end. Doyle moves her about the stage (subtly highlighted by a follow-spot) and her lines, conceived as part of larger conversations, are more often delivered directly to the audience, as if they are her thoughts. Cabell’s warm vocal delivery and piercing eyes make her a compelling focus.

The stage she wanders, designed by Scott Pask (one of those Tony winners), will catch audiences’ attention the moment they enter the Marx Theatre. It’s a deteriorated, late 19th-century ballroom where plaster cornices have fallen to the warped parquet floor and a century of neglect has left it in sad condition. At some earlier time, it became an office — cheap fluorescent lights were hung and a few pieces of worn office furniture remain — but its purpose has long been forgotten and the room is strewn with trash.

Doyle keeps his entire cast onstage, wearing tattered garments from mid-20th century Russia, including Soviet-era uniforms for the military characters. (Costumes were designed by Tony winner Ann Hould-Ward.) What’s worn often helps to define characters: Boorish sister-in-law Natasha (Sarah Agnew) wears a garish 1950s cocktail dress with too many petticoats and odd color choices; Baron Tuzenbach (Tony winner Frank Wood), Irina’s constantly rejected suitor, is dressed in shopworn top hat and tails; other characters’ garments might be flung on the floor to become a bed.

Doyle’s concept forces audiences to work at understanding many moments. Why does a non-speaking maid (Kelly Pekar) dressed in a military uniform hand out props and periodically ring a bell as characters come and go? What does it mean that Irina lays a rose on her father’s grave (a piece of fallen plaster), when later Natasha wanders the room at the conclusion holding it, then flinging it away? These choices have meaning, to be sure, but they're neither obvious nor resonant.

Doyle has staged musicals in which actors double as musicians, making the story more abstract. Another kind of distancing is at work in Three Sisters; these wonderful veteran actors are “interpreting” Chekhov’s play. You might be fascinated by the insights Doyle’s production offers, but if you don’t know the play well you’re likely to leave scratching your head.

THREE SISTERS, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 21. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



11.08.2009 at 02:04 Reply
As I don't live in Cincinnati- I had to make a special 1 hour drive in to see THE THREE SISTERS at Cinti POP. IT is a strange production- and definitely misrepresented by the initial photo on the website. It is a "gulag" production of different eras. The acting was overall pretty great- considering the dreadful production these talented people were stuck in. The stage was littered with junk, drywall chunks, paper- dirt- which sitting close by ACT 2 I had a dust allergy attack from this garbage being kicked around and had a coughing jag. I love Chekhov and I am glad he is dead and does not have to go through this production of his masterwork play. Did other people like this ? The theatre was not sold out on a Sat.and the row behind us left at Intermission. For us the tickets were a "gift from a friend"? I realize everyone in the arts is on a budget but this was just ridiculous. For my money I will definitely research the productions more before I either accept tickets or more likely buy tickets to Cinti POP.I agree with the CITY BEAT REVIEW and see it as a 1Star rating only.IF you have a chance to see it free- and like bizarre renditions of Chekhov you will like this .


11.20.2009 at 10:14 Reply
We saw this on the first night of previews, and I must disagree with the commenter below. We thought it was a first-class production: Yes, the stage was littered with drywall chunks, paper and dirt -- that was the point, right? They're living in the ruins. The set is powerful. The actors were talented, the staging excellent. That said, we were among those many people who left at the intermission. Why? Just too hopeless and depressing of a story. We honestly thought, "Do we really want to stay another 90 minutes amidst these hopeless, unhappy people? When it seems clear it will all end badly and with no hope?" We felt guilty about abandoning the actors, but that aside it was actually a pretty easy call. Why torture one's self? We're not totally provincial people, either: a couple of medical doctors, an Emmy winner, and a woman with a masters in communications from Emerson. None of us was Russian -- perhaps that's the problem. Or perhaps Chekhov doesn't translate quite as well to the modern age. When Irina laments again and again about how she wants to go to Moscow, we don't think "Isn't life frustrating?" Empowered as we are in the 21st century, we think, "Don't talk about it, girl -- ditch these horrible people and GO TO MOSCOW." Hannah Cabell was very very affecting, I agree. I'm just sorry we couldn't give the play a warm response.