PRC’s Nuanced New Version of THREE SISTERS: Ennui on Stage, but Not in the Audience

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The Ensemble in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Jan. 20-Feb. 7, 2016. Directed by Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

After several snow days, the PlayMakers’ Repertory Company‘s new production finally got to open on Tuesday, Jan. 26. It was not quite the celebratory occasion everyone had expected, the big welcome to PRC’s new producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch. But there is plenty of cause for celebration following the first public presentation, however delayed, of this updated classic. Benesch has beautifully directed an elegant new version of Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, by Libby Appel, and has gotten both seamless ensemble work and acute characterizations from the large cast, in the process bringing out many points of commonality between the life depicted in the classic play and life today. If you are new to Chekhov, this would be a marvelous introduction; for the repeat viewer, it may in some ways be a revelation, and not just for the success of the color-blind casting.

Given the deep understanding of character and human arrangements that Appel has demonstrated previously as a director at PRC (The Glass Menagerie, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) and her avowed lifetime passion for the works of Chekhov, it comes as no surprise that her Three Sisters provokes empathy rather than impatience with its philosophizing, unhappy people. (This new version was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, of which Appel is Artistic Director Emerita; she was assisted in the literal translation by Allison Horsley.)  Benesch, as she has previously demonstrated at PRC in her direction (especially of Love Alone, and In the Next Room), has a capacity of heart that allows her to show us humans with their marvels and their fears and foibles all blended.

Appel, Benesch and Chekhov together coax us into a nonjudgmental state of empathy and compassion for people whose weak or ridiculous qualities we might otherwise despise, and force us to ask the characters’ questions of ourselves. What do we really know? How do we get through this life? Is work the answer? Action, accomplishment, love: does any of it matter? Are we just stuck here, getting more stuck every day? Chekhov wrote Three Sisters in 1901, but sometimes this play (set in a Russia very long gone) seems stunningly modern, and very like Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

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L to R: Arielle Yoder as Maria (Masha) Sergeyevna, Allison Altman as Irina Sergeyevna, Marinda Anderson as Olga Sergeyevna and Joshua David Robinson as Colonel Aleksander Ignatyevich Vershinin in PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

On Tuesday night, the cast, although having had their momentum interrupted before they had even completed previews, was uniformly solid, from the students to the longtime PlayMakers to the guest artists. But in the second act they rose again and again to brilliance, and all the passions running under their surfaces burned clear. Daniel Pearce is particularly notable as Kulygin, the kind, absurd, self-deluding schoolteacher whose bored and disappointed wife Masha takes up with the dashing Colonel. Pearce makes him pathetic, but not pitiful; we cannot laugh at Pearce’s Kulygin, although we know he is ridiculous. The production design by Alexis Distler and the solo cello music composed by Ari Picker and played from the stage balcony by Isabel Castellvi further encourage us in a mournful kindness to those versions of ourselves, our families, our societies, who are bumbling through life on stage.

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Daniel Pearce as Fyodor Iliyich Kulygin and Allison Altman as Irina Sergeyevna in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of THREE SISTERS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

As happens on rare, wonderful occasions in theatre, some of the passions on stage became so real on Tuesday night that even the actors seemed to forget they were acting. Daniel Bailin, as the Baron, seemed to actually tremble while saying goodbye to Irina and going his brave and foolish way.

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Joshua David Robinson as Vershinin and Arielle Yoder as Masha in PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

And Arielle Yoder, Allison Altman and Marinda Anderson were so far in character as the three sisters that when the lights went down and the applause went up, the three visibly had to force themselves back to the here and now, and stifle their tears so they could take their bows. Now that’s powerful theatre.

At PlayMakers through Feb. 7. Tickets here.

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Arielle Yoder (Masha) and Allison Altman (Irina) near the end of PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

A Common Wealth Endeavor at Common Ground

Small and Tired. The title had me from the get-go. Turns out to be a fascinating 2013 play by Australian Kit Brookman–based loosely on a big and fierce source, the Oresteia. “Loosely” is a key word here. It will not help you to follow the pains and struggles of this contemporary family if you try to directly tie them to the happenings in Aeschylus’ House of Atreus. For the clear lines between action and consequence quiver and blur without the gods and their rules, and this modern family founders in a mess of its own making. Or is it of their own making? Brookman has his Pylades point out, early in his first encounter with Orestes, that even generals are following orders, implying that the gods of war, at least, persist in our time. (Cue the Bob Dylan, 1963. “Masters of War.”)

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The ensemble in the Common Wealth Endeavors production of SMALL AND TIRED, at Common Ground Theatre through Jan. 23. Photo: Alex Maness.

What the two stories really have in common is war. Long, stupid war, in which men slaughter not just each other but women and children, and their slaughter wounds and kills the women and children they left at home. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to pacify the goddess Artemis; in Small and Tired, Iphigenia kills herself after seeing photographs from her (never named) father’s war–bloody Afghanistan. Nobody in the family was right after that. Young Orestes was sent far away to boarding school; now, upon his father’s death (the how of which is never told) he’s come “home” to organize the funeral, since his crazy sister Electra and his puzzling mother Clytemnestra can’t seem to manage, even with the help of Electra’s nice husband Jim.

This Common Wealth Endeavors presentation, currently at Common Ground Theatre (through Jan. 23) is the first US production of Small and Tired. Directed by Common Wealth Endeavors’ founder, Gregor McElvogue, it is the latest show in his ongoing effort to introduce us to English language plays from the rest of the English-speaking world. McElvogue, who is British, trained at the London Central School of Speech and Drama, and he has added hugely to the Triangle theatre scene for years, first as an emotionally powerful actor and clear-eyed director and now as the leader of these Common Wealth Endeavors. His directorial senses of timing and tone have resulted in some very fine performances of demanding plays.

Those senses seemed slightly out of kilter in the Jan. 9 performance that I saw. Although various scenes came vibrantly to life, in others, the actors’ delivery was wooden, their words sounding recited, rather than spoken. By rights, I should have been wrung out by the play’s end, but the erratic intensity levels precluded that. And generally, the pace was a bit languid–it did not contrast enough with the slow-moving scene changes, which in themselves were interesting–dim, cooly-lit, they allowed for tableaux as well as for moving the furniture, and were a marvelous way to indicate the passage of time.

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Jane Holding as Clytemnestra, and Justin Brent Johnson as her son Orestes, shortly before their final parting in SMALL AND TIRED. Photo: Alex Maness.

Although all of the men–Justin Brent Johnson as Orestes; Justin Peoples as Pylades; and Lihn Schladweiler as Jim–had some powerful speeches, the woman were more consistent. Laurel Ullman was pretty scary as Electra, but her force could have been greater with a few beats more of silence–she seemed a bit rushed. Jane Holding as Clytemnestra, however, cannot be rushed. Holding spun out her pauses; her unexpected comments burst forth as if from an opened pressure valve. Using stillness and slight shadings of voice and facial expression she communicated implacable will and vast suffering. She knows her line is ending. Iphigenia dead all these years; Orestes gay; Electra childless. All that is left is the long dwindling. Holding distills all that into the poignant moment when she says goodbye to Orestes. That moment, along with many others studded throughout the play’s 100 minutes, make the production’s shortcomings easily dismissible.

For tickets go here .

 

Vacation’s Over, Theatre’s in Full Swing

Area theaters are kicking the new year off right. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 series has a very interesting one-woman show through Jan. 10, KJ Sanchez’ Highway 47.

One of the play’s purposes, of course, is for the artist to come to terms with being her father’s daughter. But unlike many personal history-centered performances, Sanchez uses those personal meditations to bolster the tragic story, rather than making herself and her trials the point of the production. Certainly she reveals a good deal of herself, but (so happy to report) her play is not screaming “me, me, me.” Instead, she allows this story to reveal a little-known aspect of the history of this continent, and cannily places it in the long theatrical tradition of exploring human frailty and venality, and the ties and taints of blood.

Go here to read my full review on cvnc.org.

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At PlayMakers’ PRC2 through Sunday, Jan. 10.

 

Elsewhere: take your pick, or gorge on theater day and night.

Friday brings the first night (also Jan. 9 and 14) of a developmental reading of a new work by Mike Wiley, Downrange: Voices from the Homefront, in Swain Hall at UNC-CH. Presented by the UNC Dept. of Communication Studies and Street Signs, this is the first in this Process Series, Veterans and Their Families: A Festival of New Works.  (919) 929-2787. http://www.streetsignscenter.org/

In Durham, the Delta Boys reprise their production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at Manbites Dog through Jan. 10. Shows are selling out. Contact Manbites for tickets. www.manbitesdogtheater.org or 919.682.3343.

Common Wealth Endeavors previewed Small and Tired, a new play by Australian author Kit Brookman, last night at Common Ground Theatre. The official opening is tonight, and the run extends through Jan. 23.  Directed by Gregor McElvogue and starring Jane Holding, Justin Brent Johnson, Justin Peoples, Linh Schladweiler and Laurel Ullman, the play reworks the Ancient Greek myths surrounding the house of Atreus, setting them in a very recognizable landscape: the suburban back yard. tickets@fromcommonwealth.com  919 410 8631. Review coming here next week.

There’s lots more! Check your local calendars.

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