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.

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Chekhov-tinted Comedy in PRC’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are in the Triangle to have a very good regional  professional theater at our public university in Chapel Hill? Currently, as it regularly does, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting a recent play in wide production around the country, which allows theater-goers here to share in a kind of dispersed national intellectual conversation. Through October 5, we are talking about Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, and which provides a fabulous showcase for some of the PlayMakers company’s most comic talents, and for a flashy turn from the guest artist.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background). Photo: Jon Gardiner.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background) at PlayMakers Rep through October 5, 2014. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

VSMS is directed here by Libby Appel (artistic director emerita of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), who directed an exquisite version of The Glass Menagerie for PRC a few years ago. She brings the same deft guidance to Durang’s play, ensuring that the delicate aspects of the characters are not lost in the rowdy roar of the broader comedy. Appel is undoubtedly aided in her approach by her deep knowledge of the works of Anton Chekhov: she has recently completed new translations of five Chekhov plays. The more Chekhov one knows, the more references one will catch and enjoy and correlate inVSMS, but it is not essential to know any.

Two siblings, Vanya (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Sonia (Julia Gibson), live in the house they grew up in, the house in which they devoted the prime of their lives to caring for their infirm, demented parents. The parents are now dead, and Vanya and Sonia are marooned with their disappointments and old grievances, their tedium interrupted only by Cassandra, their semi-psychic housekeeper (Kathryn Hunter-Williams). Their successful–but now losing the battle against aging–actress sister Masha (Julie Fishell), who pays the bills, blows in with her boy-toy (Christian Daly). He sets everyone on their ears with his bold sexuality. And then there’s the ingenue next door, Nina (Arielle Yoder). Oh yes, Masha announces her plan to sell the house, and her other plan–to take everyone to a costume party. She’s brought their costumes: her brother and sister are to be two of the dwarves to Masha’s Snow White. One revolts; one doesn’t.

Under Appel’s direction and with this tight ensemble the play achieves a dynamic balance between the outsized comic carrying on and the right-sized human sibling interactions, with the two catalytic outsiders to inject additional energy. Christian Daly, with his large-planed face and hyper-physique, is very amusing as the ridiculous would-be actor Spike, and his presence in the story allows for even more theatrical references to bolster all the Chekhovian ones. He makes you want to wash your hands, but lovely Arielle Yoder makes you feel like you have just washed your hands. Her character Nina may be star-struck and stage-struck, but she is an actual ingenue, and her presence is a balm to the older people.

The squabbles, alliances, attacks and unexpected revelations of the three siblings always ring true, and form the more memorable aspect of the show. Julie Fishell is a marvel to behold as the fading movie star Masha: commanding, neurotic, comic, tragic–and ultimately, released from her fears, at least for a minute. Her timing, as ever, is impeccable.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya.             Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Comic honors go to Kathryn Hunter-Williams for her portrayal of the nutty housekeeper Cassandra, who goes about in floating clothes, spouting warnings and prophecies. The scene with the voodoo doll is purely hilarious. All fans of Hunter-Williams will want to see her in this unusual role.

But Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Vanya and Julia Gibson as Sonia, although they had the quieter roles, made the heart beat in the play. I’ve seen Cornell play many, varied, characters, but I had never seen him inhabit a role more fully than he did Vanya on opening night. It was a beautiful performance, robust but nuanced emotionally. He and Gibson, who has shown amazing range in the short time she’s been with PRC, interacted with a testy ordinariness that was both amusing and endearing.

Gibson rather steals the show with Sonia’s transformation from dumpy whiner (“I have no life!” “I am a wild turkey!”) to a voluptuous woman who can take action. Her appearance in a blue beaded evening gown, speaking like Maggie Smith, brought the house down, but the later scene, when Sonia takes a phone call from a man she’d met at the costume party, is far more affecting. Gibson’s face expresses a trajectory of emotions leading to a tentative happiness, a surprised contentment. And in the final scene, the three siblings nestle together, sharing those emotions. Lovely.

 

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

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