nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
February 12, 2009
Harlem Stage and Classical Theatre of Harlem infuse a lot of life into Anton Chekhov's play about the decay of the moneyed class and the wish for things we do not have. If I could, I would shrink this production into something I could fit into my pocket to use as my best defense for those times when I wind up in an argument with someone who thinks the classics should not continue to be staged. I would pull this production out, plop it in front of the naysayer, and let it prove that if thought, passion, energy, humor, and bravery are put into the project, the play should and will continue to have a life.
This production has all that and more. It has teeth. It has edge. It has three hours worth of actors busting their humps, pouring love into what they do. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see an ensemble push individually and collectively to make a tough play work. And this company, under Christopher McElroen's subtle direction, does that to the nth degree.
Three Sisters is not an easy play mentally or emotionally. Fortunately, this production really delineates the arcs of all the characters so the slams to the system are done in artistic way. If you go with the argument that character is plot then this piece is 15 plays in one. Those mini-plays intermingle and interrupt one another and combine to create something that will make you ache if you really do the math while watching it all collide.
It's been said that Anton Chekhov is the father of modern drama. This production is a great reminder of that. But I would also contend this evening proves Chekhov was also the pioneer of cringe comedy. In between the moments of heartbreaking sadness and good natured humor, there are moments that will make you wince and twist in your seat. The director and the cast have astutely realized that these awkward moments were written on purpose by Chekhov and the only way to survive them is to really hunker down and not gloss over them. Or to amp them up until it is almost unbearable for those watching.
The overall story is simple enough. There are three sisters whose father died several years prior so they must make their way. The oldest, Olga, is a teacher who doesn't want to be Headmistress. The middle one, Masha, is married to a man she doesn't enjoy. Irina, the youngest, wants to go to Moscow because she doesn't like being in the country. Their brother, Andrey, marries a simple girl, Natasha, who slowly begins to take over the house. The soldiers are in town and their exploits affect life in the home. As soon as any of the characters feel like they are on solid footing, the rug is pulled out from underneath them. You get to see that literally with Troy Hourie's smart set design, comprised of Oriental rugs that overlap and cover one wall, go across the floor and up the other wall. The seating arrangement at Harlem Stage for this show puts the audience in two long banks lengthwise facing each other so most of the action happens in the alleyway playing space down the middle. This could cause a number of problems but the staging and scenic elements are handled with ingenious simplicity. The transformation for the fourth act is incredible and I did not see it coming. Kimberly Glennon's costumes, Alexander Sovronsky's music, and Aaron Black's lighting also contribute to the authenticity and atmosphere nicely.
The performances are stellar across the board. Reg E. Cathey as Chebutykin, the army doctor, anchors the play with pathos. Sabrina LeBeauf is astounding as the oldest sister Olga. She has some heavy lifting with this role to which she brings a balance of seriousness and lightness. Phillip Christian is shocking with Solyony's pathology, which contrasts nicely with Joshua Tyson's sweet-natured Tuzenbach. The love triangle that is between these two soldiers and the youngest sister is captivating. Carmen Gill is adorable and vulnerable as Irina putting on purposeful blindness in many situations. Billy Eugene Jones as Andrey and Jonathan Peck as Kulygin, Masha's husband, give nuanced portrayals of two men who are painfully aware of their terrible situations but choose to rise above them, a smarter choice than what lesser actors have done in these roles by wallowing in the misery. Daphne Gaines delights in taking charge as Natasha. Roger Guenveur Smith supplies a lot of poetry to his portrayal as Vershinin. I kept thinking there's a great Cyrano production waiting to be built around him. Amanda Mason Warren's Masha understandably falls for him. Her unraveling in the end is amazing. Carmen de Lavallade and Earle Hyman change the molecules in the air with each brief appearance throughout the evening. These stage titans leave you wanting a spin-off with their portrayals of Ferapont, the old man from the county offices, and Anfisa, the abused family nurse.
By the end of the play each of these characters are quite changed from where they were in the beginning, even if they have been fighting against the transformation. This is a basic element of drama that separates the good from the great. Having a strong creative team that can finesse the workings in great writing makes it even better.
Go to 135th Street. See some unbelievably good Chekhov in a nice theater space. Remember what a pain in the neck being alive is and why it takes great theater like this to cure it.