Three Sisters (Review)

Ruhl's and Doyle's spin on Chekhov play will challenge audiences

Nov 2, 2009 at 2:06 pm

When a director pushes boundaries, great things can happen. That’s certainly what John Doyle’s staging of Three Sisters has tried to do.

A high-profile venture for the Cincinnati Playhouse’s 50th anniversary, Doyle’s production uses a new, very colloquial version of Anton Chekhov’s play by the much-admired writer Sarah Ruhl and a team of Tony Award winners and nominees. Doyle has made a name for himself with musicals, including the 2006 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Cincinnati Playhouse, which moved to Broadway and won a Tony.

[Read my interview with Doyle and Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern about Three Sisters here.] 

For his first non-musical in the U.S., Doyle has made Chekhov’s classic play of ennui and frustration into something wholly new. There’s much to praise about this production, but I’m guessing most audiences will react to it with ennui and frustration.

We don’t see much Chekhov locally (although Cincinnati Shakespeare has recently presented The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull), so our eyes and ears aren't readily attuned to the welter of characters, emotions, opinions and attitudes. Doyle’s production helps us sort the discontent felt by the sisters, fretful Olga (Alma Cuervo), unhappy Masha (Laila Robins) and idealistic Irina (Hannah Cabell), transported by their father’s military career to a rural Russian town, bereft of culture and stimulation.

Although father has died, they’re still mired in a community they yearn to leave behind for the attractions of Moscow. We especially follow Irina’s arc from inexplicable joy in Act I to palpable sadness at play’s end. Doyle moves her about the stage (subtly highlighted by a follow-spot) and her lines, conceived as part of larger conversations, are more often delivered directly to the audience, as if they are her thoughts. Cabell’s warm vocal delivery and piercing eyes make her a compelling focus.

The stage she wanders, designed by Scott Pask (one of those Tony winners), will catch audiences’ attention the moment they enter the Marx Theatre. It’s a deteriorated, late 19th-century ballroom where plaster cornices have fallen to the warped parquet floor and a century of neglect has left it in sad condition. At some earlier time, it became an office — cheap fluorescent lights were hung and a few pieces of worn office furniture remain — but its purpose has long been forgotten and the room is strewn with trash.

Doyle keeps his entire cast onstage, wearing tattered garments from mid-20th century Russia, including Soviet-era uniforms for the military characters. (Costumes were designed by Tony winner Ann Hould-Ward.) What’s worn often helps to define characters: Boorish sister-in-law Natasha (Sarah Agnew) wears a garish 1950s cocktail dress with too many petticoats and odd color choices; Baron Tuzenbach (Tony winner Frank Wood), Irina’s constantly rejected suitor, is dressed in shopworn top hat and tails; other characters’ garments might be flung on the floor to become a bed.

Doyle’s concept forces audiences to work at understanding many moments. Why does a non-speaking maid (Kelly Pekar) dressed in a military uniform hand out props and periodically ring a bell as characters come and go? What does it mean that Irina lays a rose on her father’s grave (a piece of fallen plaster), when later Natasha wanders the room at the conclusion holding it, then flinging it away? These choices have meaning, to be sure, but they're neither obvious nor resonant.

Doyle has staged musicals in which actors double as musicians, making the story more abstract. Another kind of distancing is at work in Three Sisters; these wonderful veteran actors are “interpreting” Chekhov’s play. You might be fascinated by the insights Doyle’s production offers, but if you don’t know the play well you’re likely to leave scratching your head.

THREE SISTERS, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 21. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.