At the beginning of Miami Theater Center’s imaginative, engaging new version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a smartly dressed Russian maid comes into the theater lobby. She rings a small bell, requesting that the waiting guests follow her into the home of the Prozorov family. Only a small group of theatergoers gets invited into the spacious turn-of-the-century home on the MTC stage, but since the house appears to be a gathering place many in the provincial town, the presence of 49 observers feels perfectly natural.
As adapted by director Stephanie Ansin and designer Fernando Calzadilla, the newest take on a Russian theater classic aims to be inclusive and clear, welcoming and intimate. Intricate in its conception and benefitting from the work done over a long rehearsal period, MTC’s Three Sisters realizes its high ambitions on almost every level – script, design, performances, movement, music and sound. Is it flawless? No, but it is an enchanting, unique South Florida theatrical experience.
Though Chekhov’s lengthy drama has been reworked into a play that runs not much more than two hours, Ansin and Calzadilla take us on a familiar journey with three restless sisters stuck in the provinces and longing for more.
For eldest sister Olga (Yevgeniya Kats), married middle sister Masha (Emily Batsford) and childlike youngest sister Irina (Diana Garle), Moscow symbolizes all the glamor and excitement missing from their lives, and Irina is determined to move to the capital as soon as possible. But in the meantime, as the sisters wait for a move that never comes, there are romances, betrayals, a marriage, births and a death. Life is what happens while we wait for dreams to come true.
For this Three Sisters, the audience sits on a moveable onstage riser, at first facing the elegant public area of the Calzadilla-designed home and, beyond that, the dining room with its impossibly long table. Then, as the action shifts to a shared bedroom, we shift in that direction. After another turn, tragedy unfolds on a vast porch, then a hopeful note is sounded as the play ends where it began. Sounds dizzying, but moving the riser actually enhances the actor-audience connection.
So does Ansin’s decision to have the actors voice private thoughts standing in a spotlight as close as possible to the audience. Composer and sound designer Luciano Stazzone underscores those moments with a metallic sound, and after the first few light-pool speeches, the device feels repetitive. But his work, from bright bird sounds to musical underscoring, is otherwise lovely.
Honed over two months of rehearsal, the performances are uniformly strong. Kats is a calm, level-headed Olga, a 28-year-old “spinster” who mothers the younger Irina. Batsford creates a tempestuous, deeply unhappy Masha, a woman dismissive in her dealings with her devoted husband Kulygin (Christian T. Chan), shameless in her surrender to the seductively charming Lt. Col. Vershinin (Wayne LeGette). Garle’s radiant Irina juggles disparate suitors, in particular the elegant Baron Tuzenbach (Troy Davidson) and the surly Captain Solyony (Art Garcia), but neither can compete with the imagined true love who awaits her in Moscow.
Theo Reyna and Nikki Lowe are a deliberately mismatched pair as the sisters’ passive gambler-brother Andrei and his bride Natasha, an insensitive and manipulative woman determined to dominate life in the family home. Also in the Prozorovs’ orbit are Doctor Chebutykin (Howard Elfman), an ex-alcoholic who loved the sisters’ mother (and who, when he slips back into drinking, gives one of the most powerful speeches in the play); Anfisa (Linda Bernhard), an aged servant the imperious Natasha would love to get rid of; Ferapont (Steve Gladstone), an elderly messenger; Anya (Ana Mendez), that welcoming maid who is frequently sent dashing around that long dining table by choreographer Octavio Campos; Tammy Srinivas as another maid; and Jeremiah Musgrove and Ted Cava as two more visiting soldiers.
Utilizing multicultural casting and deliberately embracing such anachronistic touches as a tender snippet of a duet by LeGette and Batsford on Embraceable You, Ansin and Calzadilla have crafted a Three Sisters that has as much to say to 21st century Miami as Chekhov’s original did to Irina’s beloved Moscow more than 100 years ago.