When I think of Anton Chekhov, who may be the greatest playwright of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies (his too-short life and career straddled both), I’m especially drawn to his paradoxes. One among many—he is so very Russian; yet is any writer more universal?
By his Russian-ness, I don’t mean simply the settings of his plays, though it’s true enough there: few moments are as instantly recognizable as Irina, Masha, and Olga pining away for their happy past life in Moscow in The Three Sisters. I’m thinking more of the complex tonal shifts, the laughing-through-tears emotional arcs. I have a good friend, a scholar of Russian drama theater, who insists no non-Russian can ever truly “get” Chekhov.
Yet the playwright’s claim to more global wisdom is far greater. In the precious handful of full-length Chekhov plays we have, central themes include crumbling social orders, missed opportunities, unfulfilled romantic dreams, crippling short-sightedness, and maybe most of all, inertia. What’s more universal than that? These comedies (as he famously—and, yes, paradoxically—called them) are as true today as they ever were… and they apply to life more generally.
So it’s no wonder that riffs on Chekhov plays are a genre—or maybe several genres—of their own. A few are laughably awful (Woody Allen’s exercise in Chekhovian bathos, Interiors, is a particularly egregious example—with acolytes like Woody, who needs enemies?). But others make ingenious use of the originals to tell different and more contemporary stories.
Reza de Wet’s Three Sisters Twois an admirable example very much in the latter category. In this rethinking of Three Sisters (which also wittily evokes other celebrated works), De Wet, a South African playwright who wrote the original in Afrikaans, envisions parallels between Russia in the decades after the revolution and the tumultuous world of her own country, as Apartheid finally crumbled.
We are back with the Prozorov family, now twenty years later and into the new century. Virtually all of the group have survived with their dreams and disappointments intact. It’s the world itself that’s different. Bolsheviks are now in control, and any sense the group had of their own social prestige is meaningless. The best the group can do is to hang on, as bombs go off around them.
Seen here, in a marvelously high-style production by director Brenna Geffers, these characters are very recognizable to anyone familiar with the original—but more heightened. (If Chekhov really did think of his plays as comedies, this production might gladden his heart.) Geffers has inserted many playful touches, not least in several inspired pieces of cross-gender casting.
Andrew J. Carroll is in many ways the best Masha I’ve ever seen: imperious and self-dramatizing, the actor makes misery look absolutely glamorous. Amanda Schoonover (Andrey) is wonderfully cranky but also lovable; Colleen Corcoran is a worldly, rakish Vershinin. The more conventionally cast Maria Konstantinidis is an extravagantly funny Natasha, and Lee Minora a delightful Irena. Not coincidentally, all five are veterans of Geffers’ Anna, a masterful free-form adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina which was part of EgoPo’s season two years ago. The remaining actors—Jahzeer Terrell (Olga), Ross Beschler (Igor), and Kishia Nixon (Sofja)—are also excellent.
The central takeaway from this visually stunning production—as austere as Anna was inviting—seems to be that no one really ever changes fundamentally, no matter how radically their circumstances shift. Perhaps that’s how we cope; or perhaps, that’s why some of us don’t cope and instead get washed away in the shifting tides.
Effectively as Geffers and company make that point, I’m not sure we need a two-hour play to do it. Seen here, de Wet’s script feels not as resonant as it might, and in particular, there is little that underscores a connection to South Africa. I imagine that seen in that country, one might feel closer to it.
But as a show, superbly realized on every level, Three Sisters Two is a winner, and a welcome reminder that EgoPo at its best is Philly’s gold standard for theatrical innovation and imagination.
Three Sisters Two plays through February 17. For more information, visit the EgoPo Classic Theater website.