REVIEW – Three Sisters – Douglas Morrisson Theatre

Three Sisters is considered a classic. It’s considered a masterfully structured play. It’s an example of a specific type and representative of a specific era of theater. It’s also a play I don’t fully comprehend, beyond highly dramatic roles for actors, why it’s done. It’s an awful lot of wingeing and people being miserable and seemingly self-fulfilling prophecies. That sounds awful I know, but my personal tolerance for woe is me is just too low to fully appreciate this play. And, mind you, it’s the play and not this production that generally leaves me with an itchy hand, aching to slap some sense into these characters, and beg them to shut up.

My reaction is not entirely unique. There have been comments throughout history about the obnoxiousness of 2 ½ hours of characters who don’t  really seem to have it all that bad except that they all seem to be torturing each other. Soap Operas are popular and hinge on conflict and drama, but the urge to tell them all to suck it up was oppressed on more than one occasion. I counted maybe two characters who actually say anything positive that wasn’t wholly inappropriate on some level or met with total rejection. These characters are pathetic, depressing, and don’t appear to be too terribly deprived. Sure they have had a few unfortunate circumstances at the start of the play, but overall it just seems to me a case of the grass is always greener on the other side with a dash of Eeyore and Scrooge thrown in.

This translation/treatment by August Osage County playwright, seems to emphasize very disruptive, staccato rhythms. There are lots of odd, sharp, random non sequiturs, and a few phrasings that seemed very out-of-place. It was almost a Brechtian approach, throwing in some modern language, just to make sure you’re were paying attention, to shock you out of your complacency as it were.  If you’ve seen August Osage County, you’ll see a lot of resemblances in the dynamics and power struggles of Letts’ family of characters and the characters in Three Sisters; similarly damaged people and lots of bitching and moaning.

The talent of this production seems to be a tad uneven, with some limitations from some cast members and a couple standouts pulling all the focus. I can see where more heightened choices highlight the dysfunction, social awkwardness, and miserable state of things, but contrasted against some really solid, more natural performances, it made it feel more like the actors were trying too hard, not the characters. Fine lines to be sure, but cracks in the continuity of the piece I think.

Technically, this production was very concrete. The set is nice, the use of space is really great too, and I appreciated the symbolism woven into the scene changes. Sound design was good, costuming fit and seemed consistent and appropriate to the period too. Lighting choices I think were probably deeper and more intentionally stylized than I fully understood, but lack of understanding any metaphor didn’t detract from anything. I do love this space and the tech and direction always seems to use every inch of the venue, creating a really immersive and positive experience for the audience. The one exception to that, would be when anyone leans on or touches the walls between seats and stage. It comes just a bit too close to breaking that 4th wall for me, pulling me out of the action at times.

So obviously these characters got under my skin, but to be fair, below the surface, there IS more going on here. I’m no Russian history scholar, so I’m missing part of it for sure, but this play is a commentary on the times which is certainly congruent with today’s culture. I will say, this play is relevant even if it’s annoying. Scroll through your Facebook feed of first word problems, passive aggressive pleas for validation and selfie after selfie and I’m equally put off as I am with these siblings and their acquaintances. It’s this parallel where this production of the play really saved it for me.

There’s a degree of irony, humor and satire present, and while I wasn’t sure about all the laughs being intentional, some definitely were and they were done well. Mentions of Moscow became quite humorous. Everything’s better in Moscow. Moscow, Moscow, Moscow. It makes me wonder if the Moscow Tourism board maybe slipped Chekov a few extra rubles every time a character made reference to life being much better there.  There‘s even a nod to that wretched selfie that works perfectly. These touches, these details didn’t go unnoticed and it bears repeating that those nuances and laughs made Chekov’s melodrama bearable for me.

While I clearly have a visceral contempt for the content of this play, I can’t fault the production too heavily. If I go to a tea house and don’t like tea, I’m going to meet with a certain amount of bad taste in my mouth. I can’t separate it out entirely either as the play is part of the experience. It is possible that I’m not supposed to see these characters as likeable at all or feel any sympathy for them other than how sad for them they are so ridiculous, in which case, the play was definitely done right. A tough 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara. I’m glad I saw it, I think it’s a respectable production of a challenging play, but if I’m totally honest, it didn’t effectively demonstrate to me why such a vast number of people really do love this play. Maybe I would feel differently if I saw it in Moscow. Three Sisters plays through March 8th at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward

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