Three Sisters: A Lively Production by the Drama Guild at the University of Ottawa.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

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.

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Three Sisters

by the Drama Guild at the University of Ottawa

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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

Cast:

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

                                               Hannah Martin


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