by Lynn on November 12, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Hart House Theatre, from the Howland Company and Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Until Nov. 12.

Adapted and directed by Paolo Santalucia

After Anton Chekhov

Set and costumes by Nancy Anne Perrin

Lighting by Christian Horoszcak

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Cast: Ruth Goodwin

Steven Hao

Kya Harper

Christine Horne

Cameron Laurie

Dan Mousseau

Robert Persichini

Hallie Seline

Maher Sinno

Shauna Thompson

Caroline Toal

Ben Yoganathan

Ethan Zuchkan

A fully committed, well-intentioned attempt at adapting Chekhov’s Three Sisters that unfortunately misses.

The Story. With a classic as well known as Chekhov’s Three Sisters one should talk about the original story in order to reference the updated adaptation. So—we are in a small garrison town. Three sisters—Irina (the youngest), Masha (the middle one) and Olga (the oldest) are celebrating Irina’s ‘name day’. They came there from Moscow 11 years before, when their military father was stationed there with his brigade. Since then the sisters yearn to return to Moscow and even more so since their father passed away one year before. The sisters remember Moscow as vibrant, exciting and there was plenty to occupy them. This little town is not vibrant, exciting and there is little to do except to entertain the soldiers waiting for action. Even the weather is better in Moscow.

Irina is the one who pines the most for Moscow. She is loved by Tuzenbach, a sweet but uninspiring man. Solyony also loves Irina in a rather morose way and considers Tuzenbach to be his rival.

Masha is married to Kulygin and she is unhappy. Kulygin is devoted to Masha but he bores her. But then Masha meets Alexander Vershinin, an officer in the military and there is an attraction and they fall in love. Vershinin is unhappily married as well to a mentally fragile wife.  Olga is a hard-working school teacher who hopes she is up for a promotion to run the school. Andrei is the sisters’ awkward brother. He loves Natasha, an equally awkward woman, whom he eventually marries. Andrei begins to gamble and jeopardizes the sisters’ house. There are others in that household but that gives the background.

Paolo Santalucia, the adapter and director of this production updated the play. While he says in his program note that his version of Three Sisters is not a metaphor for the pandemic of the last two and a half years, that closed theatres, the pandemic certainly informed his adaptation. He yearn to go back to the theatre just as the three sisters yearned to go back Moscow. That is a fair comparison—a pandemic prevented Santalucia from going into a theatre and the sisters were bound by family obligations to follow their father to this small town. But societal realities for the three sisters’ yearning and Santalucia’s yearning couldn’t be more different. One might ask, what is preventing the sisters from returning to Moscow now that their father is dead? While the pandemic closed theatres, theatre work continued in other forms. Santalucia is a resourceful artist—finding another way of doing theatre is a viable option for him. In his update Santalucia had the sisters pining to return to ‘the city’ without naming it. That clouds the issue of their longing. Where did they want to return to? We are never told. Chekhov was specific. Santalucia removes the specificity and lessens the idea of yearning to return.

In his version Santalucia changed the gender of Alexander Vershinin from a man to a woman who is now known as Alex Vershinin, a woman and officer stationed in the town with a husband and young daughter. Alex Vershinin still falls in love with Masha and she with Vershinin. For the most part Paolo Santalucia follows the story of Chekhov’s play. Whether it still works as a play ‘after Chekhov’ is another matter.

The Production. Set and costume designer Nancy Anne Perrin has created a set of the sisters’ house that is on two levels. The upper area is the dinning room where a large dining room table is located. Two characters casually dressed are playing a card game I believe. It’s difficult to tell because the table is so high up and at the back of the set, we can’t see properly. A bit of a miss-step there. There are references to flowers in the text but one is hard-pressed to find them on this set.

On the lower level, characters sit in chairs or lay on a couch. Masha (Caroline Toal) lays on the couch trying to read while all sorts of talking goes on. She fidgets and shifts around with agitated movements, indicating her displeasure at the noise.  Irina, a buoyant Shauna Thompson, is celebrating her birthday and is happy about that, but thinks back to Moscow and how she misses it. As Olga, Hallie Seline is the hardworking teacher who frets about getting promoted to head mistress of her school.

Nancy Anne Perrin also designed the costumes and they are appropriate to the times for the most part. However, the costumes for Natasha (Ruth Goodwin) are eye-brow-knitting. Natasha is Andrei’s bumbling, inappropriate girlfriend and later wife. She is initially garish, gauche and out of place. Her costume for her first entrance is none of these things. The colours are just bright. If they aren’t garish then Natasha’s transformation from this awkward woman to one who is imperious and more stylish just falls flat and that’s what happens here. Ruth Goodwin as Natasha is certainly formidable when she marries Andrei and takes the place of the head of that household, but the costumes have to do their part too to help create this monster of a woman.  

The Hart House Theatre is an unforgiving barn of a place when it comes to acoustics. Being heard is a challenge if one is inexperienced in working in such a sound-sucking room. So, after trying to make out what some actors are saying, it is a pleasure when Robert Persichini as Ivan (Chebutykin) a doctor arrives. Persichini’s voice carries effortlessly to the rafters and back. Ivan is one morose man, who has lost his zeal for tending to the sick (not the first time one hears of such a character in Chekhov). Persichini loves the sisters because he secretly loved their mother. He observes those there and sees the folly of their ways, but is sad about it all.

When Alex Vershinin (Christine Horne) arrives to pay her respects to Irina on her birthday, she meets Masha. The attraction should be instantaneous and I didn’t get that sense between Christine Horne as Alex and Caroline Toal as Masha. I found the gender switching of Alex from a man to a woman to be arbitrary, even though our world is becoming more aware of gender fluidity. And I didn’t get the sense of helpless, passionate love between the two of them. Alex saying she loved Masha is in the text but the words are not established by performances that set up this relationship.

Similarly, the rivalry between Tuzenbach (a courtly Cameron Laurie) and Val (Solyony) played with understatement by Maher Sinno. I thought Val could have been more substantially written to give the character more presence.

Theo (Kulygin) is Masha’s devoted, awkward husband. Colin Doyle usually plays him but he was out sick on the opening. Dan Mousseau is the alternate for this role and he is arresting. This is a performance of size, detail, wonderful awkwardness but sweetness and you couldn’t stop watching him because Mousseau is that good in the part.

As Anfisa, the aged maid/nanny etc. who has been with the family since the sisters were children, Kyra Harper is fragile-minded because the character is 80+. She is fretful because she is forgetful and feels she will lose her job. It’s a performance of real sadness and Kyra Harper gives a lovely performance of a woman terrified of this new matriarch (Natasha) and fears the sisters will not be able to save her.  

Comment. I can appreciate the intention of rethinking and modernizing Chekhov’s Three Sisters and I was glad of many of the performances. But the reality is that this production of Three Sisters missed making its points.

The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre present:

Closes Nov. 12.

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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