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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Three Sisters and
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The cast of Three Sisters
Photo by Mark Garvin
I had my doubts at first.

The Arden Theatre's production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters opens not where Chekhov set it—rural Russia, circa 1900—but in a modern American rehearsal hall. Actors in contemporary clothes sit around reading the play—and sometimes mocking it. One actor adopts a Boris Badenov voice and jokes, "I think just for matinee I use Russian accent." Another actor whistles "Send in the Clowns" at a sensitive moment. Can't anyone take this classic drama seriously?

Well, as it turns out, these actors are taking this play very seriously. So are Curt Columbus, who wrote the unfussy (and sometimes slangy) new translation, and especially director Terence J. Nolen. Nolen's masterful production starts off casually, with the actors' modern dress and attitude putting distance between themselves and their characters. But as time goes on, the actors slip further and further into their characters, and the lines between actor and character disappear. By the time the play is half over, the plaid shirts and blue jeans have been replaced by tunics and ankle-length dresses (Olivera Gajic provides the costumes). The music played during scene changes evolves from cutesy 1920s ukulele jazz to solemn Russian folk songs sung in the original language. And as the bare white walls of Eugene Lee's rehearsal hall set slide away, the show's conceits slide away with them, and the audience slides effortlessly into Chekhov's world.

Nolen's approach during the play's first half uses modern techniques to draw the audience into the story: watch the way the live feed from a video camera, projected on the wall, focuses in on middle sister Masha as she becomes enraptured by a speech by the dashing army Colonel who will become her lover. It's an audacious use of a cinematic close-up to show a woman falling in love. But in the show's second half, Nolen abandons 21st century storytelling techniques; the audience is so involved in the story by that point that it doesn't need them. And the lightness of tone in the play's first half is so thorough that the more dramatic moments later on pack a wallop. The tactic works superbly: at the performance I attended, a collective gasp arose from the audience during one of the final scene's most emotional moments.

The acting is superb throughout. Sarah Sanford, as oldest sister Olga, is stern yet unassuming, while Mary Tuomanen, as youngest sister Irina, tempers the giddiness of the early scenes with a refreshing forthrightness. Best of all is Katharine Powell, who makes middle sister Masha's dreams, frustrations and final heartbreak palpable. There's also exceptional work from Scott Greer as the doctor whose jovial manner can't mask his sadness, Ian Merrill Peakes as the colonel who captivates Masha (and everyone else), and Luigi Sottile as the brother whose life gradually spins out of control. Rebecca Gibel is deviously satisfying as the sisters' two-faced sister-in-law.

The style of the Arden's Three Sisters may seem self-consciously arty at first, but stick with it. Purists may scoff, but Nolen's production ended up being the most approachable, most engaging production of Chekhov I've ever seen.

Three Sisters runs through April 20, 2014, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$48 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at

Grace Gonglewski, Kraig Swartz, Deirdre Madigan
Photo by Mark Garvin
Speaking of Chekhov ... while the Arden does its spin on Chekhov, Philadelphia Theatre Company does a play that spins him around so much it would get him dizzy. Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is stuffed with references to Chekhov's plays—not just the character names in the title but references to The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. Don't know those plays? Don't worry; maybe you'll get the references to "Entourage," or "Ozzie and Harriet," or Philadelphia weathercaster Carol Erickson. For Durang, it's all one big cultural stew, and the more esoteric his play gets, the sillier it gets. And PTC's production does a fine job of capturing the play's ridiculous and surprisingly poignant essence.

Vanya and Sonia is set in a pastoral area of Bucks County where fiftyish brother and sister Vanya and Sonia lead a quiet life—too quiet for Sonia, who feels stifled. But then Masha, their petty and resentful movie star sister, shows up with her latest boy toy, Spike, in tow. Her plan is to sell the family homestead (shades of The Cherry Orchard) and force her siblings out. But she also has plans to show off her Hollywood glamour at a costume party—only to find that, as Olga says in Three Sisters, "Things didn't turn out like we wanted." Then again, unlike Masha, Olga never went to a costume party dressed as Snow White.

Director James J. Christy's production hits most of the right notes, although two of the supporting performances—Alec Shaw as Spike and Clare O'Malley as neighbor Nina—seem oddly muted. But there are terrific, wide-ranging turns from Kraig Swartz as Vanya, Deirdre Madigan as Sonia, and Grace Gonglewski as Masha. Swartz, with his hair and newly acquired beard turned a blondish gray to make him look like Durang, makes the most of a long line of acerbic quips. His best moment is a long monologue in which he rails against modern technology and extols the days when families watched "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "we licked postage stamps." Madigan gets to play much of the play's more outrageous comic moments—she's great during scenes where she cuts loose after years of repression—but she also gets a touching monologue that brings a tear to the eye. Gonglewski is a suitably flamboyant and pompous comic figure, and Kianné Muschett has good moments as a housekeeper with a gift for prophecy, though her role is too lightweight. David P. Gordon's high-beamed house set is attractive.

If Three Sisters is a rich theatrical banquet, consider Vanya and Sonia the after-dinner ice cream. It's a lot sweeter than the main course, and while it may not be nourishing, you'll be glad you had a taste.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through April 20, 2014, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $ – $59, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or in person at the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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