Hey theater geeks, you’ll want to pay attention to this one! Did you ever think it’d be cool to sit back with the characters you had just seen on stage and just shoot the shit for a while, gain some refreshing insights about the play they inhabit and get their perspectives on all manner of topics great and small?
Well now you can, thanks to No Sisters, currently at Studio Theatre, the latest addition of provocateur playwright Aaron Posner’s “reimagined Chekhov;” the third in a fan-favorite series of Anton Chekhov-related works, after Stupid F—ing Bird and Life Sucks.
Commissioned as a part of Studio R&D, the company’s new works initiative, No Sisters is more beholden to the original play it springs from—Three Sisters—than the previous spinoffs.
In fact, it’s running in repertory along with Three Sisters at Studio and was crafted in such a way that it works best when experienced after viewing Three Sisters during one of the repertory’s weekend showings. You read that right: while an exuberantly madcap version of Three Sisters is playing downstairs in the Mead, over half the cast are spending their offstage time upstairs in the Milton, dressed up as a “weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room,” according to Posner, performing in No Sisters.
And if you’re a fan of Chekhov’s Victorian-era play about the three miserable sisters Olga, Masha and Irina and their also-miserable brother Andrey (Ryan Rilette) you’re going to have a great time with Posner’s latest riff. For example, Andrey hates being a him-too, you find out in No Sisters, as in “the three sisters … and him too.”
Without completely giving away the goods, I can tell you that you’ll get some compelling backstory for many of the classic work’s supporting characters—as the name suggests, the titular siblings don’t make an appearance—you’ll see the duel between Tuzenbach (Ro Boddie) and Solyony (Biko Eisen-Martin) play out; witness a cathartic moment of truth between embattled husband and wife Andrey and Natasha (Kimberly Gilbert); and glean new resonance from characters like Anfisa (Nancy Robinette), the aged servant woman, Kulygin (Todd Scofield) the pedantic schoolteacher and Fedotik (William Vaughan), the idealist soldier.
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closes April 23, 2017
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You’ll even get to meet Anfisa at the age of the youngest of the three sisters, played by Daven Ralston, in a delightfully unexpected and poignant rendezvous with her older self, in which the prime theme of Chekhov’s parent work is rung like a bell. When the old woman painfully asks why her life turned out wanting, her younger self confides to her the simple tragic truth—she’s been coveting things she doesn’t have all her life and that seed went ahead and did what seeds do and bore fruit.
That’s just one of the many intriguing reveals contained in No Sisters. Some additional guidelines: even though the characters come from the play Three Sisters, and they are aware they are from that play, they are not bound by any time and space rules. They pull things from the headlines, they speak as we do, in the here and now and even interact with the audience.
Yes, come prepared with questions and retorts! Speak back to the characters! They want you to! The group on press night was unaware of this, resulting in some synergy falling short.
You may have surmised by now that No Sisters is a lot funnier than Three Sisters. It also gets deep. From panegyrics to love and hate, and observations and commentary about the world of Three Sisters and the world outside, Posner can’t resist waxing SERIOUS about SERIOUS things from time to time, but that’s OK, because the variety and flow of the piece keep things moving.
The performers all stand out when judged against their roles downstairs. There’s a lesson in there somewhere—everyone becomes likable when you get to know them, and even the bizarre sociopath Solyony attains a tortured relatedness. Gilbert’s nervy, hilarious turn as Natasha turns her into an anti-heroine you could cheer for and Scofield’s upstairs portrayal of Kulygin is no longer strictly a pedant, but rather an entertaining fellow. And who would’ve known that the muted peasant Anfisa had soul-bearing wisdom to share? It’s all the more impressive when you’ve seen them in Three Sisters and know what they are doing downstairs, that they can change gears and make such an impression upstairs. These actors are essentially performing in two plays at the same time. And you are privy to them both being performed. That’s right, everyone attending No Sisters is able to spy a live feed of Three Sisters running simultaneously (I believe this is only for the weekend performances). That alone had me smiling through the fast-paced three-hour runtime.
In fact, the goings on in the source play downstairs (viewed via an array of video monitors) are woven into the action upstairs. Actors rush off to hit their marks downstairs, comment on the drama below and sometimes find out things they shouldn’t. I think a comment made by Gilbert to The Washington Post puts a clarifying spin on it: “I have no choice but to be pulled back into the wormhole that is Three Sisters,” she said. “And then I’m released out of it every once in a while to come upstairs and vent about it.”
Finally, and probably most importantly for anyone reading this review, even though Posner has said that No Sisters “can be a satisfying experience on its own,” I disagree. Others are wondering in what order to watch the two productions. So, a cheat sheet on whether or not you should see this play, and in what order, according to various scenarios:
*If you have no knowledge of Anton Chekhov and don’t know Three Sisters from Three Amigos, this play is not for you. There’s just too much you’ll miss. See the excellent Three Sisters at Studio first and then if you like it, No Sisters.
*If you self-identify at house parties and happy hours as a huge fan of Three Sisters but haven’t seen it in a while, do yourself a favor and see Three Sisters first, followed by a viewing of No Sisters. If you last saw Three Sisters 10 years ago, No Sisters will have little resonance.
*If you wouldn’t think of missing Three Sisters, or have seen this particular production at Studio and were wondering about No Sisters—just do it. It’s quite fun and an innovative theater experience, which is not always easy to come by.
Does it make a difference in what order you see the two plays? YES!
The ideal outing would be:
- Purchasing tickets for a weekend show when both plays are running at 2 pm and 730 pm. And there’s a discount for doing this.
- Seeing Three Sisters in the afternoon in order to understand the context of the play and know who the characters are.
- Enjoying food, drink and conversation among the many fine establishments in the area.
- Sitting down for No Sisters in the evening, where you’ll be privy to an array of inside references and revelations that will make you smile, laugh and connect the dots in a meaningful way.
If you were to see No Sisters first, not only would you be confused and missing out on much of the fun, but you would also take notions into Three Sisters that do not belong there.
To put it succinctly, Posner’s latest is a brilliant gem of transmutation if viewed as a companion to Studio’s Three Sisters. On its own, it’s an addendum without a program.
No Sisters. Written and directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Ryan Rilette, Kimberly Gilbert, Todd Scofield, Ro Boddie, Biko Eisen-Martin, William Vaughan, Nancy Robinette and Daven Ralston. Set design: Daniel Conway. Lighting design: Jesse Belsky. Sound design: Christopher Baine. Costume design: Jessica Ford. Stage manager: Becky Reed. Produced by Studio Theatre and New Neighborhood. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.