Three Sisters Come and Go
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
September 29, 2010
Let's talk about Chekhov for a moment, shall we? I should expect readers of this site are at least passingly familiar with his work. He is, after all, an indisputable theatrical giant: a member of that select group of Big Important Playwrights whose very names are used as shorthand adjectives to describe entire moods and movements. Definitely not bad for a former physician who's mainly known for four plays and a handful of short stories.
It always surprises me, then, that Chekhov, for being so well-known and revered, and for having such relatively small output, is so rarely understood. The general impression most have of his works (at least, in my experience) is that he is a curator of depressed, repressed, lugubrious portraits peopled with sadsack characters who just sit around moping and complaining. Of course, I can't claim that that isn't 100% inaccurate, but it's far too frequently forgotten that Chekhov's plays can also be funny and weird as hell. Even in his own lifetime, he was constantly protesting that his works were meant to be seen as comedies. He was a realist, yes, but he knew that reality was a funny thing, peppered with absurdities and idiosyncrasies, and it's his dramatizing of this phenomenon that elevates his works into the supreme ranks of psychologically exhilarating theatre.
Thankfully, TheaterLab understands this. Their experimental piece Three Sisters Come and Go is quite possibly the best abstraction of all the things that make Chekhov's plays so marvelous that I've ever seen. It's a beautiful amalgam of Chekhov's own dialogue (from a number of his works, not just Three Sisters), mixed with a dash of the postmodern literary anthropologist Julia Kristeva's study of melancholia, and some Samuel Beckett to taste. Sounds lofty, I know, but it's all done with a contagious sense of play and insight that never bogs the evening down with pretension. Definitely not bad for a show with three actors, no set, and a run-time of about 75 minutes.
This would be the point in the review where I'd start to address things like plot and character. However, that isn't the point of this uniquely amorphous piece. This isn't so much a retelling of Chekhov's famous drama regarding the Prozorov sisters and their yearning for Moscow; there are no linear, traditional storylines or characters here. Three Sisters Come and Go takes the basic mood of Chekhov's Three Sisters (which, really, is the most effectively existential examination of waiting that side of Godot) and turns it into a collage of moments and riffs unmoored from context and plot.
In lieu of narrative, what we are given are a handful of vignettes and a lot of beautifully wrought silence. That may sound ludicrous, but trust me on this, volumes of story are told within the quietude that dominates the evening. Essentially, Three Sisters Come and Go can be described as a movement piece in which silence is the principal dancer. Or, perhaps a more accurate metaphor is a theatrical manifestation of a form poem written in small font on a vast piece of paper. As the evening progresses, we get closer and closer to the text—it becomes talkier and talkier and more and more specific—but in the end, the words are still predominantly defined by the whiteness around them. It's a breathtaking experience.
The three actresses, Liza Cassidy (no relation), Claire Helene, and Jackie Lowe, form a delightful ensemble and are also each given solo moments in the spotlight—every one shines in a unique and assured way. They pass characters to each other like volleyballs. They are at once irreverent and respectful, melodramatic and honest—the perfect playing style when it comes to Chekhov. Of course, massive lauds and credit must go to director Orietta Crispino. With her assistant director and co-dramaturg Marco Casazza, she and these three lovely actors have created a theatrical piece that manages to be about nothing and everything at the same time.
The piece jumps from style to style, and from character to character. It is alternately jarring, poignant, funny, profound, messy, and humane—in short, definitively Chekhovian. This is experimental theatre of the highest order. Granted, if that term really turns you off, you've probably written off attending this piece anyway, but if you've ever wondered what it is about Chekhov that has secured his place in the theatrical canon (and, indeed, a knowledge of Chekhov is not required to get a lot out of this piece; my companion was unfamiliar with most of his work and still loved it, too), or if you're simply a fan of the playwright who worries that no one "gets" old Anton Pavlovich, then I highly recommending checking out TheaterLab's Three Sisters Come and Go. You won't come away being able to rattle off plot points or trivia from any of Chekhov's works, but you will come away with a greater understanding of what makes his work so special in the first place.