— Act IV Bob Frazer and Emma Slipp: Bob Frazer (Vershinin) and Emma Slipp (Masha) in Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Photo: Emily Cooper
Chekhov is notoriously hard to get right. A lot of theatre fans, including me, think he’s up there with Shakespeare in the Great Dramatists Club. But North American actors and audiences have a tough time grasping the Russian sensibility of his characters, who philosophize incessantly, cry through their laughter and laugh through their tears. Maybe that’s why Vancouverites haven’t seen a professional production of Three Sisters for 33 years.
The Only Child Collective has taken up the challenge. Staging a new adaptation of then play by Amiel Gladstone in The Cultch’s intimate studio, director Jane Heyman and a superb cast walk the very fine Chekhovian line between tragedy and farce, conveying the story in all its profoundly sad and complex humanity. This is great theatre for grown-ups.
All Chekhov’s plays take place in a kind of historical limbo at the turn of the 20th century. The serfs have recently been freed, the upper classes are losing their grip, the Russian Revolution isn’t far over the horizon but no one knows what’s going to happen. Although the characters speculate endlessly about their lives, their society, the future, with few exceptions they don’t do much about anything. They dream and drift.
The sisters of the title are all in their 20s when the play opens in 1901, living in an isolated provincial town where nothing ever happens. Olga (Manami Hara), a schoolteacher, faces a life of drudgery and spinsterhood. Masha (Emma Slipp) is bored out of her mind, having married the dullest, most pedantic man in town, good-natured schoolmaster Kulygin (David Bloom). But Irina (Rachel Aberle), just turning 20, is filled with optimism, especially if they would only move to Moscow along with their scholarly younger brother, Andrei (Alex Rose).
But her dreams quickly sour. Andrei’s promise is snuffed out when he marries the fertile Natasha (Adele Noronha), who turns out to be a shrew. Masha starts a doomed affair with dashing Major Vershinin (Bob Frazer), also in a bad marriage. Rumours abound that his regiment, the town’s only diversion, is being transferred to Poland. Irina agrees to marry Tuzenbach (Brahm Taylor), a good man she doesn’t love, and is being stalked by a bad man, erratic Solyony (Luc Roderique). Old doctor Chebutykin (Richard Newman), a drunk, provides nihilistic choral commentary. “Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay,” he sings, as their world falls apart around them.
They don’t give in easily. Vershinin philosophizes about a better world hundreds of years in the future, made possible by their suffering. Irina and Tuzenbach, who admits he’s never worked a day in his life, plan to work to make life better now. And the sisters still dream of going to Moscow. But we know it’s not going to end well.
Chekhov adores all his characters and wants us to care deeply for them. At the same time he knows that while life may be sad, it’s also ridiculous, so we have to laugh, too.
One scene illustrates how beautifully this company handles the Chekhovian formula. When Vershinin and Masha are momentarily interrupted by her husband, who insists, “I’m happy, I’m happy,” Masha throws herself down and screams into a pillow. Slipp and Frazer make the doomed lovers heartbreaking, Bloom’s decent Kulygin is both sympathetic and stupid in his denial of the obvious, and Slipp gets an unexpected laugh out of Masha’s frustrated scream. What a joke, it seems to say, our lives are.
There are many such richly textured moments in this production, a lot of terrific acting, and handsome costumes by Mara Gottler. Under Heyman’s direction everyone maintains energy and pace and shows real clarity of intention. Act four, where Chekhov repeats himself a little too much, could use some trimming in Gladstone’s otherwise efficient adaptation. But you wouldn’t want to mess too much with this winning formula.