nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 11, 2008
File this production under intriguing ideas that didn't work.
Theatre of the Expendable, a young energetic company that has been getting some good attention here at nytheatre.com and elsewhere, is currently presenting Chekhov's Three Sisters in a production subtitled/blurbed "6 Actors * 12 Dollars." The claims are true, but the concept of staging this complicated, rich play with a cast of half-a-dozen begs the important question of why: what is gained from such an unorthodox staging? Unfortunately, there's little evidence of a clear answer.
Instead, the device comes across as a gimmick, and usually a distracting one at that. Some of the double-/triple-/plus-casting is felicitous but most of it is troublesome. Chekhov's characters interact with each other a lot, and so it's hard for adaptor/director Jesse Edward Rosbrow to find combinations of roles for a single actor to play without making that actor either have a conversation with him/herself or, worse, walk offstage in the middle of a scene, only to return a few seconds letter in the guise of someone else.
Some key moments in the play are badly undermined by this. When the three sisters are photographed together at the end of Act I, not one of them is actually seated at the table—the three actresses who play them are all busy being other characters! And when the sisters spend their famous quality time together in Act III, the moment is interrupted by Morgan Anne Zipf, who plays Masha, having to exit so that she can return as Natasha.
Rosbrow's adaptation of the text itself is also problematic. He has left the play in its original time period (the turn of the last century) and he has kept much of the dialogue's trademark Chekhovian awkwardness (people use expressions like "as they say" a lot, and they call each other by all those different kinds of Russian names that make it so confusing for the uninitiated). But Rosbrow also has thrown in the occasional Anglo-Saxon exclamation (curse words as well as less provocative ones, such as "wow!"), which is very jarring indeed.
The failure of the directorial concept makes it hard to judge the actors' contributions. There are clearly some interesting takes on the characters being put forward: David Ian Lee's Vershinin is quite well thought-out, for example, and both Kendall Rileigh as Olga and Caitlin McColl as Irina often find transcendent moments. But the constant putting on and casting off of identities strains everyone, and many of the characterizations are mere caricatures, including Zipf's Natasha and Lee's Chebutykin, which is unfortunate because if the performers were only charged with creating one of the play's rich denizens, I suspect they'd all do a bang-up job.
Mainly I was left wondering what the casting choices were supposed to prove. Some of the actors play against gender, but only in the smallest roles; I wondered if something interesting might have happened if one of the sisters had been played by a male or if Vershinin or Tusenbach had been portrayed by a female. But finally no commentary or new information about the play emerged from the concept.
I am sure that Rosbrow and his hard-working cast and crew will learn much from this experience, and apply it for the better in new productions to come.