Vodka shots, drunk dancing, suffering, happiness and questions about the true meaning of life only come together in two places: a Friday night at Yale or a Russian drama.
“Three Sisters,” which runs until Oct. 8 at the Yale Repertory Theater, ably combines these two distinct locales (if you happen to see the production this evening). The play follows the lives of three Russian sisters: school teacher Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), the unhappily married Masha (Natalia Payne ’03) and the optimistic Irina (Heather Wood). Over the course of the play, the sisters slowly realize that dreams of leaving their rustic small town for the beloved Moscow where they were born will never come true.
The Yale Rep, in co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theater, took on an ambitious project with this classic play. Playwright Sarah Ruhl, who returns for her fourth time to the Yale Rep, used a literal translation of Chekhov’s script and tried to stay as true as possible to the original. But this faithful translation is likely to lose some audience members who are left to bear three hours worth of awkward phrasing and overly redundant and exaggerated monologues. Much of the romance is lost when going from Russian to English.
But lighter moments and occasional jokes save this production from the otherwise grim mood and heavy philosophical musings that the characters relentlessly spout until the end. In the opening act, the cheap jokes seem out of place, but as the story progresses, they are a welcome respite. Whenever the young soldiers Rode (Josiah Bania DRA ’13) and Fedotik (Brian Wiles) enter the scene, cracking jokes and bringing small gifts to the sisters, the audience cannot help but laugh along.
The sisters themselves are predictable characters whom everyone knows from the start of the play are destined to face harsh disillusionments. All three are smart, beautiful and caring: The eldest, Olga, is a no-nonsense, protective sister; Masha, in typical middle-child fashion, is moody, dark and sullen; and Irina, the youngest, plans to find true love in Moscow while denying the advances of the many soldiers stationed in the town. Despite their archetypal makeup, the three undergo serious character changes that enliven the tale.
Chekhov/Ruhl did not give Stetson, Payne and Wood much to work with, but the actresses made the most of the script by imbuing their characters with just the right amount of vitality and melancholy.
But the scene-stealers are the loveable drunk army doctor, Chebutykin (James Carpenter), who suffers from fading memory and age, and Natasha (Emily Kitchens), the sisters’ overbearing sister-in-law. The two actors immensely lighten the mood, and though Carpenter gives the most believable performance, Kitchens’ over-the-top portrayal of the domineering sister-in-law is the highlight of the show.
Although many of the characters play canned roles, the production itself is more complex. It involves multiple simultaneous conversations and subplots, which, if not dealt with in the right way, could be very disorienting. Director Les Waters manages to guide the actors from mark to mark and cue to cue, so the audience can keep up with the story. Set desiger Annie Smart’s scenery compliments Waters’s vision, providing a layered set that allows the action to unfold without feeling crowded. Characters cheat themselves into the background, while another character shifts into focus. At one point, the catwalk, up stage, center stage and downstage stage were all in use, and the story was still easy to follow.
“Three Sisters,” though hard to sit through, is one of those plays that makes you feel incredibly intellectual when it’s over. The content is heavy at times, but the humor and clarity help to balance the three-hour show. If little action and long monologues aren’t your ideal Friday night, we might recommend forgoing Russian drama for a Yale weekend instead.