“Three Sisters” rough around the edges, but still powerful

If the self-portrayed character of Elizabeth Wurtzel from the autobiography “Prozac Nation” was fractured into multiple personalities and made into distinct characters and then translated into Russian, the result might be Allison Horsley’s contemporary English translation of an obscure Russian play called “Three Sisters.”

“Three Sisters” is an exhausting play to watch. Not because it is boring or moves at a slow pace, or even because it is three hours in length. In fact, the play is highly dynamical in its dialogue and holds all the vicarious appeal of a modern-day reality show putting on display the lives of ordinary women and men living day to day through very trying times.

This is precisely why watching the play, presented by Southern Oregon University’s Department of Performing Arts at the Center Square Theatre, is an exhausting experience. It is too vicarious for comfort, too reminiscent of the fruitless striving for happiness that seems to define modern America.

The play, written at the turn of the 20th century by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, depicts the lives and times of a provincial Russian family in the late 1890s, making the parallel to modern times in America all the more surprising and surreal.

We watch the cast of characters, directed by Scott Kaiser, navigating mundane and familiar daily activities such as eating, drinking, gossiping, sleeping (or trying to sleep) and generally wasting time now and then, all the while commenting on how elusive and unattainable happiness is.

At the risk of causing Chekhov to turn over in his grave, “Three Sisters” really is the thinking-person’s answer to “Jersey Shore,” only with the theme of depression versus happiness put on explicit display.

The story line spans just over three years, from May 1897 to September 1900. The titular three sisters are members of the Prozorov family. All three sisters frequently express their dream of finally being able to move to Moscow.

Olga (Hannah Gassaway) is the oldest of the three. Even at the young age of 28, she establishes herself from the outset as a matronly figure overseeing the lives of the other two sisters.

Next is Masha (Chelsea Mia Acker), a forlorn and melancholy woman who always wears black. She is suffering through a marriage that has left her deeply dissatisfied. Her husband, Fyodor Kulygin (Spencer Riley Hamilton), is a Latin teacher at a local high school who is socially awkward and pretentious without intending to be.

Masha enters into a love affair with one Aleksandr Vershinin (Zlato Rizziolli), a lieutenant-colonel in charge of a Russian artillery battery who frequently waxes philosophical. Vershinin is himself trapped in an unhappy marriage with an off-stage wife who repeatedly tries to kill herself to make him feel guilty about not loving her enough.

The youngest of the three sisters is Irina (Rachel Seeley), who turns 20 years old at the beginning of the play but is still enthralled by gifts such as a spinning top and generally retains a childlike naivete through the remaining acts until sobered and brought into maturity by the end of the play.

Irina’s love interest is a lieutenant in Vershinin’s battery named Nikolai Tuzenbakh (Tyler Kubat). Tuzenbakh has a habit of following Vershinin’s lead in philosophizing about what generations 200 or 300 years in the future will know and whether happiness will have become commonly achieved by humanity at that time, but his philosophizing is mainly done to feel part of the group and to impress Irina.

The sisters have a brother named Andrey (Darek Riley), an introverted, socially shy young man who at the beginning of the play is well on his way to becoming a professor at a school in Moscow.

He is the target of well-meaning but constant teasing from his sisters on account of his falling in love with a woman he occasionally brings over for social gatherings at the Prozorov home. Her name is Natasha Ivanovna (Stephanie Neuerburg), a highly insecure young woman who is often criticized by Olga for dressing poorly and without regard to any accepted style.

The mutual teasing Natasha and Andrey receive brings them closer together, and they are married by the second act. By this time, Natasha has morphed into an assertive and manipulative person who uses her marriage with Andrey as a means of making his three sisters run the household her way. The way actress Neuerburg persuasively handles the transformation of personality makes hers the best performance of the lot.

A close second for best performance is Scott Key as Ivan Chebutykin, who at sixty years of age is the oldest of the group of soldiers and an army doctor. He starts off as a respectable teetotaler who assiduously avoids alcohol, helped along by the urgings of Olga to do the same.

The viewer is made to suspect that there is a dark side to Chebutykin that strong drink brings out. This suspicion is confirmed when he experiences an existential crisis while drunk. He is revealed to be a volatile solipsist who believes the external world is a creation of his mind. This does not fare well for the world he thinks he is creating when his self-esteem plummets indefinitely, and the viewer is made to feel unsure whether he is broken by his crisis or has merely come to terms with it.

To make a long story short, the Prozorov family never is able to move to Moscow. Andrey never becomes a professor, just a sad man at the beck and call of his insistent and preachy wife. Failed marriages remain failed marriages, love affairs come to nothing, and people die. The repeated refrain of Chebutykin, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter,” cues the end of the play.

The play is almost entirely made up of dialogue, with little to no action. The characters’ personalities and words tell the whole story, and the dictum, traditionally safe and preferable to follow, that novelists and playwrights should “show not tell” is in this case not necessary, and in fact would probably make the themes less effective.

Sarah Martin’s costume design and Ryan Callahan’s scene design, both top-notch and carefully researched, sufficiently grounds the viewing experience in the era in which the play is set and does a superb job of aiding in the viewers’ suspension of disbelief, more than compensating for the fact that none of the cast members are Russian or even put on appropriate accents. In fact, this last omission of “special effects” is probably for the best, as it gives Chekhov’s play a level of accessibility to the modern audience member.

The best aspect of the play was seeing the emotionally taxing effect it had on its performers. Kudos are due to actress Chelsea Acker, whose character Masha bursts into tears in the final act and has to be dragged away forcefully from the arms of the departing Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin as he departs on a military campaign that he is not likely to return from for many years, if at all. Her performance seemed a little forced, but this may be due to repetition in multiple showings of the play. To put it mildly, she looked tired before the light dimmed on the final dramatis personae.

As for the other performers, various slight mistakes were made during the course of the play, but these were taken in stride and channeled into affectations that, far from detracting from the play’s feel, contributed to a more natural atmosphere that seemed less artificial.

Who knows, perhaps viewers of “Three Sisters” in SOU’s Center Square Theatre were privileged to see a more natural rendition and execution of Chekhov’s vision than was achieved by its original debut performance in 1901 at Moscow Art Theatre. But this remains as much a speculation as how happy people 200 years from now will be.

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