The Three Sisters

Whoever said Russians are cold-hearted creatures hasn’t seen The Three Sisters. The new staging from the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg, Russia, which can be seen at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through next Saturday, is an emotional, heart-wrenching production of Chekov’s play about unfulfilled dreams that lets the humanity of the characters shine through radiantly.

Directed by Lev Dodin, and spoken in Russian, with English subtitles, The Three Sisters follows Olga, Masha and Irina through their young adulthood as they struggle to find happiness and fulfillment despite the constraints that life and society have placed upon them. Living in exile in the country, they long to return to Moscow, where they spent their youth. They frequently speak of this dream, saying it will happen in just a few months, as soon as….but it never does.

The eldest of the sisters is Olga (Irina Tychinina), who is unmarried and acts as the matron of the household. Masha (Elena Kalinina) is unhappily married to the kindhearted schoolmaster Kulygin (Sergey Vlasov). And Irina (Ekaterina Tarasova), the youngest, is the object of many men’s affections but refuses to marry before returning to Moscow, where she is convinced she will find her true love.

The sisters are all distinct and vibrant personalities, differing greatly in their desires but joined by their love and camaraderie for each other. Tychinina’s Olga is dignified and restrained when the show begins, but a few brief moments offer a glimpse of the burning passion beneath her stern exterior. As time passes and she becomes more and more resigned to her lot in life, her passion becomes more and more diffused and at the play’s conclusion her stiff and robotic presence resembles a zombie.

As Masha, Kalinina hides her bitter disappointment in a loveless marriage beneath a brash, comedic surface. Sarcasm and humor are her defenses, until she meets and begins a passionate affair with a married officer. Kalinina infuses Masha with vulnerability as well as anger, resulting in a very human and sympathetic character.

The youngest of the sisters, Irina has the most to hope for – and the most to lose. Tarasova’s performance as the youthful, radiant woman is heartbreaking to watch as her hopes fade to disappointment. Irina longs to work and find fulfillment but all she finds is thankless toil and drudgery. Eventually resigning herself to a loveless marriage of obedience and duty, she faces even more disappointment as the play concludes.

The man of the house, Andrey, is given a sympathetic, latently passionate performance by the baby-faced Alexander Bykovsky. His quiet determination and later passionate rage are compelling to witness. His fiance and later wife Natasha is performed by Ekaterina Kleopina, in a remarkable performance. At first insecure around the family, Natasha begins to assert herself as the show progresses, but she never registers as a completely selfish or unkind character, as she is often spoken of. Instead she is extremely complex and interesting.

The family is joined by several men onstage, including the shy captain Soleny (Alexander Koshkarev) and Alexander Zavyalov as the alcoholic Dr. Chebutikin, in an amusing but also heart-wrenching performance. As Tuzenbach, the baron who has loved Irina for years, Sergey Kuryshev gives a touching performance that is bittersweet to witness.

The suffering of this community is obvious, and the actors present it in such an authentic, honest way that one almost feels like we are spying on their private conversations, many of which are staged while sitting on the front stoop of their house. Rather than restraining their passion and longing for a better life, this family and their friends speak of it openly and eloquently. They frequently wonder what the future will hold and what the next generations will think of them. They long for a better life, but they also question the ability of humans to let it come to fruition. They are trapped in the present, and they know it, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.

The set, by Alexander Borovsky, brilliantly represents this knowledge. A simple structure of a two-story house, with large windows cut out for the actors to sit or perch in and for the audience to see through is all that adorns the stage. It slowly and smoothly moves forward between scenes as the play progresses, seeming to envelop the actors – and smother them. It beautifully represents exactly what the sisters fear – being overwhelmed and trapped by their present existence and being unable to see or escape to a better life in the future.

First performed in 1901, The Three Sisters’ timelessness is undeniable. Despite the old-fashioned costumes – and different language – the show felt so familiar, thanks to the intimacy of the performance and the talent of the actors. The discontentment of women who are trapped in their lives is a familiar theme today. As Irina spoke of her longing to work, and Olga spoke of her longing to stay home, the discord about Ann Romney and whether she has held a job came to mind more than once. “The War on Women” is a common talking point in the presidential debates, more than one hundred years after this show was written.

The sisters are praised by the doctor for being “dear sweet girls” and “precious creatures,” but they are lusty, earthy people, just like the men. Perhaps they should have been viewed that way – as human beings – and offered the same opportunities as the men in the play. Chekov saw the need for equality back in 1900, and we are still fighting about it in 2012. One wonders if The Three Sisters will be as timely when another hundred years have passed.

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