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The Three Sisters

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters looks, on paper, like an ideal project for the Stomping Ground Theatre Company, which utilizes physical and emotional improvisation to explore every aspect of a play's story and characters. With its intricate set of character interactions and complex emotions, how many plays could be more perfect?

Yet the company that worked wonders with Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale earlier this year has not been able to recreate the same magic here. In fact, parts of this production play into every stereotype many neophyte theatregoers may hold about Chekhov's plays being short on action and scant on emotional relevance.

While a few of this production's actors achieve exactly what they intend (and achieve it brilliantly), enough fail to achieve their goals to hint that Stomping Ground's philosophy is an all-or-nothing proposition. Of the three sisters of the title who long to escape their stifling provincial existence and return to the city of their birth, Moscow, only two turn in sensitive, intelligent performances (Ashley Butler as Olga and Amanda Baker as Irina), while the third (Lisa Blankenship as Masha) comes across as overwrought and emotionally false from beginning to end.

Though two out of three may occasionally be acceptable (to borrow from an old axiom), in this play it's devastating and unbalancing, toppling the delicate balance of emotion and interaction Chekhov worked very hard to establish. Of the remaining performers, only Bradley Goodwill and Steve Hamm, as a battery commander and lieutenant who are capable of creating or dashing hopes with equal facility, bring a real sense of truth to their roles. They, like Butler and Baker, seem to have lived with their characters for all their lives, the thoughts and actions of the actors and characters inextricably linked.

Michael Bernstein as the brother to the sisters who gambles away the family's life savings and Karen Ogle as his wife come close to similar achievements, but don't quite make it. The rest of the performers come across as labored and uncomfortable, almost to the point of karmic realignment. Walter Brandes is Masha's husband, Scott D. Phillips is an irascible army captain, and Joseph Jamrog is the easily-intoxicated army doctor, and all are exceedingly difficult to deal with for the long periods of time required. Rather than complementing the sisters, they stand in stark relief, providing almost comical levels of caricature and untruthfulness in the sister's mostly believable world.

Marcus Geduld directed the David Mamet adaptation of the script, providing contributions that - assuming the veracity of the program notes - most likely didn't extend beyond basic staging concepts and getting such a huge show to work in the intimate 78th Street Theatre Lab, and for those achievements, he is to be commended. But his work with most of the actors at finding the truth and emotional resonance in their characters, as well as establishing the events of the play in a greater dramatic context, are severely lacking, and prevent this production of The Three Sisters from being the sublime experience promised.

For a company with as much intrinsic promise and devotion to the craft of theatre as Stomping Ground possesses, a misstep or two is to be expected, and theatregoers excited at the prospect of getting inside the heads of characters in a unique way should eagerly await their next production. Those same theatregoers, however, may well want to skip The Three Sisters.

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Stomping Ground Theatre Company
The Three Sisters
Through December 20
78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 West 78th Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 946-1448