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vancouverplays review


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— Production poster

by Blake Morrison
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
June 7-30
$16-$20 or 604-224-8007 ext. 2

Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters has spawned many theatrical imitators, among them Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge, and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Attic, the Pearls and Three Fine Girls. Three has a mystical quality in numerology and in theatre, too, it seems. But I wonder why not three brothers, three mothers, three cousins?

Probably because Chekhov’s inspirational play is so wonderfully funny and sad. It dramatizes the lives of a sisterly trio and their brother stuck in a provincial town in Nowheresville, Russia, a couple of decades before the revolution. They dream of a dynamic future that, for them, will never come. “Next year we’ll go to Moscow!” is the play’s hopeful, ironic refrain. Of course they don’t go.

For its final offering this season, United Players is presenting the Canadian premiere of contemporary English playwright Blake Morrison’s We Are Three Sisters. Morrison’s sisters are the Brontës: Emily (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte (Jane Eyre), and the less famous Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). Although it shamelessly riffs on–and rips off–Chekhov, the play and production offer an entertaining look at these remarkable siblings and their remarkably short lives.

We Are Three Sisters drops us into the Brontës’ Yorkshire home–their father’s parsonage–in the late 1840s when the sisters were secretly writing and publishing their first works under male pseudonyms. Just like Chekhov’s, this play opens on the youngest sister’s birthday. Anne, like Chekhov’s Irina, waxes eloquently about the virtues of work; her boyfriend (her father’s young curate), like Irina’s, speechifies about the redemptive future. Both plays feature a pompous schoolmaster, a promising brother who wastes his life over an unworthy woman, an ominous offstage fight between suitors, and sisters bemoaning that “nothing ever happens here.” London is the Brontë sisters’ Moscow, where they yearn to go. As in Chekhov, everyone interesting leaves them in the end.

The parallels end there. Charlotte (Olesia Shewchuk) and Anne (Victoria Lyons) do get to London, briefly, where they meet with their publisher. Unlike Chekhov’s sisters, the Brontës have something to do: read and write and have others read what they write. Morrison gives their story a feminist spin as well. All the men condescend to them. Their father (Sean Allan) complains that they behave like men, always reading and philosophizing. How will they ever find husbands?! Anne, in turn, worries to her sisters, “What if men like those in our stories don’t exist?”

Based on the men in her life she has good reason to worry. Daddy, though well meaning, is a simpleton. The teacher (David Secunda) is an idiot, the curate (Nick Preston) a hypocrite and womanizer, brother Branwell (Jordon Navaratil) a profligate drunk. Only the doctor (Douglas Abel), hopelessly in love with the sisters, shows sensitivity and intelligence. But he’s way too old.

The sisters themselves are somewhat formulaically differentiated. Anne wants love; Charlotte, who calls Jane Austen’s novels “narrow and airless,” wants to be useful and help others; broody Emily (MariaLuisa Alvarez) wants passion. They’re framed by two other very good female characters: Tabby, the maid with attitude (Emma Middleton), and snooty Mrs. Robinson (Helen Martin) who loves Branwell and then dumps him.

Director Sandra Ferens keeps the action moving along nicely on Carolyn Rapanos’ handsome drawing room set, even through the long, draggy second act where Morrison shows unequivocally that he is no Chekhov. Nice period costumes from Elliott Squire. The acting is uniformly strong on the women’s side, although Lyons needs to be louder. Navaratil, the best of the mostly good men, could give her voice lessons. Abel and Preston are fine. Allan and Secunda overact their eccentric characters.

Throughout the play we hear, ominously, about Anne’s and Emily’s coughs (oddly, the actors never cough). None of the five Brontë sisters (two died in childhood) or their brother lived past 38. In real life, tuberculosis took them all.

Jerry Wasserman