Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a classic rumination about life, death, and everything in between. Constellation Theatre has now put its indelible mark on the tale, immersing the story in perfectly paced physical movement, well tuned comedic interludes, and tender sensibility, all with an epic-size ensemble.
In the opening scene, from their particular spots on stage, even before a word is spoken, each of the three sisters exudes a strong sense of her character and what she’s all about. And that’s a particular Constellation marking – establishing a character base from the inside so that each utterance, expression, and especially the performer’s movements come across as real and authentic, directly attributable to keen direction by Allison Arkell Stockman.
Of course, it helps to have such accomplished actors in all the roles, each having the chops to tackle portraying the evolutions of the characters and their emotional stages throughout their lives.
Nanna Ingvarsson as older sister Olga is a marvel to watch as pseudo matriarch of the family. She is the underlying strength that holds the family together even when she feels close to unraveling herself. Catherine Deadman plays middle sister Masha with a smoldering intensity with as many quietly observed reaction moments as she has text. Masha probably has the most complex inner story in that she’s never satisfied although we don’t really know why, she probably doesn’t either, and Deadman does a great job portraying her conflicted pursuits. Amy Quiggins plays baby sister Irina with exuberance and adorable appeal. More than just a pretty face with kewpie doll lips, Quiggins’ sparkling eyes actually gently fade with the toll of time and the hardship of watching her family plummet from heights to bare sustenance. The actresses convincingly relay a loving supportive relationship with each other with an almost palpable bond.
Renowned veteran Annie Houston adds professional heft in her role as long time housekeeper, and all time favorite actress Katy Carkuff tackles the juicy role of Natasha, the sister-in-law who transforms from meek and gentle to Ivana the Terrible once married with children. Natasha is the only one bringing a fertile legacy to the family– she knows it, and she brandishes her offspring like a sword and shield. Carkuff’s backyard yell when calling one of the children off stage sounds like a battle cry intending to take no prisoners, and she swaggers with an “I’m in Charge” demeanor—in heels.
Each of the male actors brings his own strength and style to bear, and they all complement each other as well. Powerhouse Brian Hemmingsen as the Army Doctor ignites his role with a roaring baritone voice and head strong approach. Joe Brack, on the other hand, is the hesitant, cagey and unsure brother, Andrei, while Ashley Ivey is constantly making do as Masha’s patient pathetic high school teacher husband. Each comfortably fits within the constellation of the many characters, love interests, barons, captains, and lieutenants who Stockman moves across the stage with determination and purpose.
Even the modern translation by Lanford Wilson works in favor of this young, robust company. The characters dream of love, of escape to Moscow or from loneliness, they yearn for safety and security, but also for purpose. “We were put here to work.” says one. Without work, there is no purpose or sense of self. The characters live out this sentiment with a strong zest for life and a quest for meaning in everything they do—whether celebrating Irina’s coming of age during Saint’s Day, frolicking and making merry to a sudden spattering of music, or busting a treasured family heirloom to smithereens to make a point, the actors approach the scenes with deeply felt clarity, and fill each moment with energy and purpose.
That’s one of the joys of this company, watching their approach to the text, how the actors bring energy to the script, and seeing how moments come to life, all staged with gallantry and style on a make-do budget on a shoestring.
The set by A.J. Guban, who also designed the spot-on lighting, consists of multiple platform tiers that help establish distinct portions of the house. In true multitasking style, rolling a couple of beds converts the dining area with complete setting for over twelve in the first act to a cozy upstairs bedroom in the second. The dining arrangement deserves special mention with the elegant tablecloth and glassware atop a sturdy wooden frame with benches for chairs. It is practical, of course, but it’s also a perfect metaphor for the company’s ability to depict earthy naturalism intermixed with elegance and style.
Speaking of which, costume designer Ivania Stack has gone all out with the period dresses. Irina is the symbol of chaste young purity in her lacey white frock. When the good times roll, the sisters’ dresses reflect the bounty in shimmery fabric fit for queens, beautifully tailored with cuffs and embroidered seams, and buttons galore. Likewise, when times become more austere, the checkered plaids come out along with aprons and sensible attire. That’s what makes the sumptuous mustard colored dress that Natasha wears so striking towards the end– she’s the only one so endowed in a startling contrast, a clarion call message that she—and her precious offspring—will be the last ones standing.
Each act reflects a different stage of life—from the young hopeful exuberant spring, and ending nearly five years later in the desolate, nearly despairing Fall with cold winter quickly approaching. Here, as in The Cherry Orchard, a precious orchard is threatened to be cut down to make way for progress and opening the land, change is as imminent as frost is in the air. Still, there is a resilience that comes through, with the message that no matter how life runs its course, even in despair, each passing moment, like a flickering candle, is precious.
Even in its young tenure, Constellation Theatre Company is already embodying that sentiment, and continues to be the company to watch. The final play of its third season, The Ramayana, “India’s Epic Tale of Passion and Adventure” promises to be a perfect showcase for Constellation’s mythical, epic, and exuberant style. It just doesn’t get much better than that.
Written by Anton Chekhov, translated by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
Produced by Constellation Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Three Sisters plays thru Feb 21, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.