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Sabrina LeBeauf, Carmen Gill and Amanda Mason Warren in Chekhov's "Three Sisters," dir. by Christopher McElroen, The Gatehouse, 2009. Photo: Troy Hourie

Best Supporting Roles
By Loren Edelson

Three Sisters
By Anton Chekhov
The Gatehouse
150 Convent Ave. (at W. 135th St.)
Box office: (212) 281-9240


Some years ago when I was translating The Three Hagi Sisters (Hagi-ke no san shimai), Nagai Ai’s witty adaptation of Three Sisters, into English from the Japanese, I asked the playwright why she had been inspired to work with Chekhov’s text. Among her reasons for wanting to transpose Three Sisters to a completely different place (rural Japan) and time (turn of the twenty-first century) was that she believed the supporting characters were in fact better developed than the sisters, which, in her mind, was a disappointment and therefore served as a catalyst to write her “own Chekhov play.” I admit that at the time that particular comment took a backseat to the more pressing concerns I faced concerning the nuances of words, oblique references to Japanese commercials, and the pronunciation of a character’s name.

Ms. Nagai’s comment, however, came back to me as I was watching Harlem Stage and the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s co-production of Three Sisters now playing at the beautifully renovated Harlem Stage Gatehouse, adjacent to City College. This is a production where several of the so-called supporting characters take center stage, making it less about the sisters than about their relatives, friends, and acquaintances who cause them so much stress and suffering. It might be true, as The New Yorker asserts, that The Cherry Orchard (in rotating repertory at BAM), with its tale of an estate foreclosure, is “the Chekhov play for the moment,” but by highlighting the often messy business of family relations, director Christopher McElroen makes Three Sisters equally fresh and contemporary.

Running the show is not any one of the sisters, but their despised sister-in-law, Natasha (Daphne Gaines), who grows more threatening every time she makes an appearance. While the Prozorov sisters play the entire show in more or less the same costume--Irina (Carmen Gill) always in white; Masha (Amanda Mason Warren) in black; and Olga (Sabrina LeBeauf) in a range of dowdy headmistress dresses--Natasha dons a new outfit just about every time she waltzes onto the stage, as if in retaliation for being chided for her “tasteless” sense of style in the first act. The stage time she actually clocks is not as long as any one of the other sisters', but as soon as she becomes the wife of Andrey (Billy Eugene Jones) she makes it clear that she is in charge. In this production, the Prozorov family unravels because of the desultory effect that Natasha has on every individual who resides in or visits the country house.

While she manages to wear down just about every character, Natasha’s hot-tempered selfishness hits Andrey hardest. He never quite measures up to the high bar that his adoring sisters set for him. They expect he will become a famous professor, but there is something amiss when he never actually plays his violin, but passes it to the maid (Lisa Helmi Johanson) for her own use; from the start, he is something of a fraud. But the effect that Natasha has on him is toxic. This becomes painfully clear in the second act when she kisses and caresses him, unbuttoning his shirt at the same moment she orders him to cancel the masqueraders, an annual tradition at the family house, and telling him that she plans to turn Irina’s room into a nursery for their baby. Instead of continuing with the foreplay, she stops dead-cold after delivering her plans. Her ruthless behavior foreshadows her affair with the chairman of the county council, Protopopov, her sharp confrontations with the sisters,! and her contemptuous treatment of the family’s long-time servants.

Sabrina LeBeauf, Carmen Gill, Amanda Mason Warren, Philip Christian and Josh Tyson in Chekhov's "Three Sisters," dir. by Christopher McElroen, The Gatehouse, 2009. Photo: Troy HourieBy the end of the play, Andrey, of course, has abandoned any ambitions of scholarship to take a position with the county council, a serious sell-out in the eyes of the sisters. While Natasha is the one who talks excessively about their children, it is Andrey who is left to push the baby carriage. While a dad taking his baby out for a stroll is hardly eyebrow-raising today, in the world of the play, such a seemingly benign gesture appears to be the ultimate act of emasculation on the part of Natasha.

The other supporting character who breathes fresh life into the play is Kulygin (Jonathan Peck). Although he is an incorrigible bore to Masha, his wife, he comes across to the audience as rather charming; there is a playful quality about him that lightens the sisters’ moodiness. At times, he is downright funny, such as when he hops into bed and hides under the covers in order to avoid a run-in with the drunken Chebutykin (Reg E. Cathey). While he senses that all is not well with his wife—she is after all carrying on an affair with Vershinin (Roger Guenveur Smith)—he truly appears to love her, and when he witnesses her parting, adulterous kiss to the colonel, he looks on not with hate or envy, but with utter dejection, making his position even more heartfelt.

So much of the play’s dialogue focuses on unrealized dreams—what life will be like in years to come, whether the sisters will ever return to Moscow, will they find satisfying work, fulfilling love. Somehow the sisters believe that they will be able to escape their unhappy, provincial life, but their disillusionment is as thick as the oriental carpets that cover both the floors and walls of the stultifying set. Only in the last act are the floor carpets rolled up, providing a momentary glimmer that some relief might in fact be in store for the tormented sisters. But with the news that Irina’s fiancé, Baron Tuzenbach (Joshua Tyson), has been killed in a duel, the sisters—and their motley crew of relatives, friends, and sponges—are propelled right back to where they started.


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