By Roz Friedman
Sarah Ruhl's new version of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, directed by Les Waters, does not hold as many surprises as was expected. This award-winning playwright, who does not know the Russian language, credits Elise Thoron's literal translation, and the help of Natalya Paramonova (Ruhl's sister-in-law) and Kristen Johnsen-Neshati for this version. Ruhl, who has employed unique staging, i.e. falling apples, elevator floods and flying fish in her other works like The Clean House, Eurydice and Passion Play, has assembled a pleasant cast of fourteen with some standouts, all splendidly costumed by Ilona Somogyi, to tell this classic story in a traditional way. This is a massively complicated piece, three hours long. We must be grateful that the plot stayed in tact and that the wonderful characters still remain recognizable, even though there are now jarring expletives scattered throughout. Not, however, as many as in the Book of Mormon or The Mother...and the Hat.
Three Sisters takes place in 1900 in Russia. A strong wood-trimmed, textured set designed by Annie Smart, smokily lit by Alexander Nichols, consisting of a very large living and dining room topped by a layer of birch trees, provides the ambiance. There, we meet schoolteacher Olga, authoritative but compassionate, portrayed by Wendy Rich Stetson, and her sisters. Happily celebrating her 20th birthday is Irina, blond, creamy-skinned Heather Wood, and a brooding, short-tempered Masha, played by a slim- dressed in black- Natalia Payne. The three have just completed their year of mourning for their father's death, and are dreaming of selling his house, fleeing this provincial town, and returning to Moscow, where they were born. They are sure they will find the intellectual and artistic life they are missing.
Masha is married to Kulygin (the amusing Keith Reddin), a much-older professor who borers her; she falls head over heels for the philosophizing soldier Vershinin and they have an affair; portrayed subtly but without majesty by Bruce McKenzie, this corporal, while always alluding to his wife's suicide attempts and their two young daughters, asks the most important questions: who will remember us when we are dead? What will life be like in the future? The most compelling scene takes place when Vershinin and his unit are leaving and Masha clings to him weeping uncontrollably. At the end, Irina, who has just found out that her fiance, the persistent Tuzenbach, a very agreeable Thomas Jay Ryan, has been killed in a duel by the fiesty Solyony (Sam Breslin Wright), insists that she will devote herself to work.
All three sisters finally accept their fate: they will not move to Moscow because they don't own the house. Their brother Andrei does. Alex Moggridge shines in this role. He's magnetic and so interesting to watch as he develops from a shy musician to a henpecked husband, a father and a clerk, a job he hates. Equally remarkable is Emily Kitchens as the outrageously obnoxious Natasha, his wife, who becomes the dictatorial empress of the house.
Three Sisters: will play through October 8 at Yale Rep's University Theatre.
(This review originally aired on WNFR Fine Arts radio.)