Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Theatre review: "Three Sisters" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has another remarkable project, presenting two major plays and five others by Anton Chekhov as well as two by Brian Friel inspired by the Russian master. If the subsequent offerings equal the quality, the look, the feel of the first, Three Sisters, this could turn out to be one of PICT’s finest festivals.

Moreover, with Three Sisters continuing through August 26th, the performances could deepen and become even more impressive.

Harriet Power’s direction of Paul Schmidt’s translation comes full of vitality, depth and meaning brought out by how her actors play with superb pace while making the characters memorable and distinctive. They create a wonderful ensemble.

Inevitably, some people shy away from Chekhov plays, thinking them too full of talk and too devoid of developments and action. This, indeed, has much talk, including obvious philosophizing (as it is often described) but the interpretations give the text admirable  definition. No one rambles. No one declaims. Everyone lives.

There is also a frequent public perception that characters in Chekhov’s play are dark and melancholy, for whom we cannot feel sympathy of empathy. This production makes clear Chekhov's art in making them real and understandable. And it makes equally clear Chekhov’s symbolisms without ever pushing them.

However it could be difficult at first to understand the relationships. The program book does not clarify, although, in time, most should becomes clear.

In a provincial town in Russia, it starts with the birthday of Irína, the youngest sister. Her middle sister, Másha, is married to Kulýgin, a high school teacher. The oldest sister is the unmarried Ólga. They have a young brother Andréi who seems to have promise as a professor in Moscow until he is sidetracked by marrying Natasha, a local, lower -class woman. Their family friend Dr. Chebutýkin is a frequent visitor. The dynamics alter with the arrival of a group of soldiers newly stationed there. They include married commanding officer Vershínin, a lieutenant, Baron Tuzenbach and quirky, aggressive Captain Solyóny. Tuzenbach and Solyóny fall in love with Irína. Vershínin and Másha begin an affair.

Clearly Chekhov intended to portray how these self-involved people are sustained by illusions and show the weaknesses of such a social class. Given that the play premiered in 1901, you could also read into it an inference that the underpinnings of Russian society are increasingly shaky, especially in how Natasha eventually becomes the household’s controlling force.

Among the six visiting artists, all with leading roles,Leo Marks stands out brilliantly as Tuzenbach, with sunny, lively innocence and a charm which would brighten any somber Russian night. Megan McDermott creates a dynamic, perceptive portrait of the variable Natásha and Christian Conn’s version of Andréi brings forth all of the young man’s pitiable weaknesses. Of the four Pittsburgh actors with significant roles, David Whalen’s performance of Vershínin makes clear all of the man’s passionate, complex soul while Jonathan Visser’s playing of Solyóny has  perfect dangerous volatility. And, as Kulýgin, Joseph Domencic makes completely convincing the man’s foolishness and how his words disguise what, inside, his heart really holds.

This production superbly gets into the essence and truth of what these people feel and equally reveals what makes Chekhov’s work classic theatre at its best.

Three Sisters continues through August 26th at the Henry Heymann Theatre at Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412/394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org

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