This contemporary adaptation of Three Sisters which fore grounds all the potentially bitter sweet humour in Chekhov’s world, brings together comedy, pathos and even near tragedy in a lively production by the Drama Guild at Ottawa University, directed and adapted by Peter Froehlich. One of Chekhov’s most important plays, Three Sisters, written near the end of his life (first produced in 1901), has not been shortened, according to the director, although given the snappy pace of it all and the comic relief laced with drama that carries it along, one has the impression that this version is much shorter than other versions have been.
Froehlich was inspired by the translations and adaptations of such writers as Brian Friel, Paul Schmidt, Stark Young Ronald Hingley, Ann Dunnigan and Frank McGuinness . There are also bits of dialogue in French, Latin, Italian, even an excerpt from “Nessun Dorma”, the aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot, as well as music from Strauss, among others, and the music of the “maskers” and “mummers” from the local carnival festivities. Such a mixture of languages and references might not please every taste but this certainly reflects the fact that the Prosorov family comes from the highly cultured Russian bourgeoisie which is one of the reasons why sisters Olga, Masha and Irina feel they do not fit into this simple country atmosphere and are obsessed with the idea of going back to Moscow, hoping to find the life they left behind.
Radical change is thus in the air and it is surely not by chance that the carnival rages outside the house, eventually invading the house, transforming the vast interior precisely into a place of liminality , a space where all traditions can be challenged, all rules can be overturned, all laws can be transgressed. Froehlich’s version of the play with its enormous cast, (Fourteen actors plus five musicians) emphasises the important moments that make all this very clear.
Jean Doucet’s effective set opens the space, breaks down the walls and brings us right into all the rooms of the house of the Prosorovs at the same moment. In this spatial organization, time is telescoped into a single flowing movement which also reflects the many personal dramas being played out simultaneously around the dwelling as the actors whisper, hum, move about creating their own vocal soundscape that inhabits the house, transforming the house itself into the all-encompassing space of the world.
The effect is one of a breathlessly orchestrated realism which is maintained during most of the performance. It does lose energy from time to time, especially at the end, because of the varying acting talents, some of which break the flow, but luckily, thanks to the strong hand of the director, the general momentum is maintained and there are many high points where individual characterizations are beyond noteworthy.
That enormous space did cause some problems. Voices were not always perfectly audible when the actors spoke upstage with their backs to the audience; at times, the wooden posts signifying the divisions of space, blocked the site lines, although the actors seemed to move when they realised this was happening. In any case, they will have to take those posts into account in a more conscious way because we don’t want to miss a single minute of this very exciting performance.
As well as the site of private and personal dramas, the space of the family also becomes a microcosm of Russian society at the moment when class structures were breaking down. Andrei’s wife Natasha (Lauren Cauchy is a surprisingly strong presence as the bad tempered wife,) refusing contact with the servants, incarnates the old Czarist regime. At the same time the youngest sister Irena’s fiancée, the young Baron Tusenbac (Ivan Frisken) and Irina herself, (Sophia Lyford-Wilson) are drawn to the new teachings of socialism and the rise of the importance of work, something the bourgeois do not respect, she says.
As the play opens, we are greeted by preparations for Irina’s 20th birthday celebration , the arrival of the elegant Vershinin from Moscow (a philosophical but tortured John Koensgen) who sets off the girl’s embarrassed giggles as well as the worries expressed by a drawn, desperately lonely Olga played by Kristina Watt . Watt’s stage experience becomes very apparent as she easily dominates the performances of the other two sisters. One could add however, that since Olga is the eldest of the three, her obsession with leaving for Moscow as quickly as possible, really does have a certain power over the other two younger girls which her age justifies and which her experience incarnates in her performance. Froehlich’s choices were clearly the result of an impeccable logic.
The troubling marriage between their brother Andrei and Natasha, produces a dictatorial and overblown sense of class conscience in a young wife whose cruelty becomes oppressive. Andrei’s profound disillusion emerges as he realizes his marriage is boring. In fact, “boring” becomes the operative word that defines the lives of all those disillusioned intellectuals, provoking the search for something new, something exciting: Masha no longer admires her professor husband Kulygin (Played by Tibor Egervari) , but is in love with the handsome Vershinin who no longer loves his wife and finds his excitement with Masha. Kulygin’s wandering around the stage, through the wings and upstairs, popping up at odd moments like a jack in the box, is both comic and extremely painful because he will not give up his wife , even though he knows that Masha is running away from him because she is under the illusion that she will be leaving with Vershinin. This round of boredom, of changing partners , of searching for one’s illusions , of establishing new relationships, reminds one of Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s play la Ronde (1897), which Chekhov, more interested in Stanislavski than Freud, still might have read while he was preparing his play in 1900.
Above all, there is the marvellous presence of Paul Rainville as the alcoholic and depressed Doctor Chebutykin who drinks to forget the boredom, to forget his past, to forget who he really is. Reduced to a feeling of pathological indifference – ”what does it matter” becomes his mantra – his character is the emblematic presence that incarnates the meaning of the play as his explosive performance moves beautifully between angry humour, pathetic self-pity, and genuine love for the sisters whose mother he almost married. His emotional range which he captures in all its nuances, is a most beautiful thing to behold and perhaps one of the strongest performances of his life.
There are the wonderful scenes where the three sisters tell each other their secrets as they toss and roll over the bed, recalling a moment of their childhood, gathering relief from all the boredom and pressure that poisons their lives The breakdown of all these relationships signals the breakdown of a whole society seeking something new, even if the “new” will eventually become old and will be replaced in its turn by something else. The biological cycle of life is inevitable and this adaptation captures that dynamic with youthful energy and freshness.
Three Sisters, directed by Peter Froehlich, is a production of the Drama Guild at the University of Ottawa, plays until December 10 at Academic Hall, the University of Ottawa. General admission: $15 (at the door)l Students: $10 Call 613-562-5761 for reservations.
by the Drama Guild at the University of Ottawa
read these reveiws on the Ottawa Citizen Blog
By Anton Chekhov
A production of the University of Ottawa Drama Guild.
Directed by Peter Froehlich
Set by Jean Doucet,
Costume design by Judith deBoer
Sound design by Nick Carpenter and Rick Cousins
Lighting design by Jon Lockhart
Music director Nick Carpenter
Olga Kristina Watt
Irina Sophia Lyford-Wilson
Masha Jennifer Capogreco
Andrei Zach Raynor
Natasha Lauren Cauchy
Fedotik Steve Bowa
Vershinin John Koensgen
Tusenbac Ivan Frisken
Rohdé James Graziano
Solyony Garret Brink
Ferapont Tom Charlebois
Kulygin Tibor Egervari
Anfia Janet Uren
Chebutykin Paul Rainville
Orderly, officers, musicians and mummers:
Alex Brunjes, Jenny David
Liz Mclelwain, Maxim Tétreault