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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

ACT Presents A Spacious Production Of Chekhov's Three Sisters

Also see Richard's review of Cooking with Elvis

The American Conservatory Theatre is presenting a spacious staging of Anton Chekhov's next to last romantic and unexpectedly funny Three Sisters at the Geary Theatre. There are broad comedy scenes plus musical arias in this version of Chekhov's classic play. Carey Perloff has also assembled a large cast; some are making their A.C.T. debuts, including the acclaimed Serbian film and stage actress Mirjana Jokovic and newcomer Katharine Powell.

My personal experience with this masterpiece of a play goes back to when I was in high school. My parents took me to New York in the summer of 1942 where I saw the legendary Katherine Cornell play one of the sisters. Also on the Barrymore stage, I saw Judith Anderson as one of the sister plus Alexander Knox and Edmund Gwenn as Russian officers. Also appearing was a young actor by the name of Kirk Douglas, playing an orderly.

I saw the 1964 revival at the Morosco Theatre with Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page as two of the sisters along with Luther Adler, Robert Loggia, Kevin McCarthy and Barbara Baxley. The last time I saw Three Sisters was at the Whitehall Theatre in London in 1999 with a young British cast in their early 20s. The last American revival of the play was at the Criterion Center Stage in New York in 1997 with a great cast of young American actors including Amy Irving, Calista Flockhart, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Lili Taylor, Eric Stoltz, Jerry Stiller, Bill Crudup and David Strathairn. I have always felt a great affinity for this comedy drama.

Chekhov wrote The Three Sisters in 1899 for Stanislavsky's famed company of actors at the Moscow Art Theatre. The American debut in English was presented by Eva La Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre at the 14th Street Theatre in 1926. Since then, every major regional company throughout the world has presented the most compelling of his plays.

Lorri Holt as Olga, René Augesen as Masha,
Katharine Powell as Irina, and Mirjana Jokovic as Natasha.

Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov sisters (Lorri Holt, Rene Augesen and Katharine Powell) who are trapped in a sleepy garrison town somewhere in the steppes of mother Russia in the late 19th Century. They are abandoned in this remote outpost by the death of their father who was the commander of the military unit. The sisters had been raised in Moscow and they now long to go back where they had such delightful childhood memories. There are many tangled stories among the 13 characters of the play, including an illicit romance between one of the married sisters and the captain of the unit (Marco Barricelli) and a selfish and domineering wife of the brother (Mirjana Jokovic) scheming to gain control of the house.

The current version is elegantly presented, and all of the characters seem to be talking to others, but no one seems to be listening. Much of the dialogue is about the futile longing for the cosmopolitan and cultural life of Moscow. The people talk obsessively about a future in which there will be balloon travel. This is a tale of unrelenting optimism among the shattered hopes of a cold marriage. The only things that makes life worth living for the sisters are the annual little get togethers with the officers of the military unit. There is also singing by one of the officers to lighten the atmosphere of the long days and nights in this small town.

Lori Holt plays Olga the exhausted elder sister who is burned out by her work as a school teacher. She delivers a wonderful textured performance as a perceptive individual who does not like altercations. René Augesen gives an outstanding performance as the bored and edgy Masha who is married to a finicky and outlandish teacher played very comically yet touchingly by a devoted Gregory Wallace. Katharine Powell, making her professional debut, is excellent as the youngest sister, Irina. She plays the character as a complete eternal optimist, knowing that she will return to her favorite city of Moscow.

Mirjana Jokovic tends to overplay the calculating Natasha. She plays her almost as a cartoon of an overbearing, crude and manipulative person. Tommy Gomez plays the hapless brother of the sisters and husband of Natasha, and he plays the character almost to the point of being too down in the dumps. It's a sulky performance.

Marco Barricelli brightens the stage every time he comes onto the scene. He gives an animated performance, talking about the future of man, social graces and the current news of Moscow. His secret affair with Masha is beautifully presented. Anthony Fusco plays the awkward lieutenant Baron Tuzenback who reflects on the future in a humorous fashion. Steven Anthony Jones plays the world weary aging neurotic doctor, performing the role with a droll sense of humor. Joan Mankin plays the worn out old nurse almost as comedy relief, while Frank Ottiwell's does the same with his role as the humbly persistent old peasant.

There are two scenes where Ming-Trent as the soldier Fedotik sings several arias from Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila that are quite lovely. The play itself is an effective exercise in naturalistic drama without any flowery dialogue, and sometimes the material is dry. However, the play is well structured and that makes it interesting.

I have never seen such a huge set for the Russian house of the Przorov sisters. You could put Miss Saigon in that set. However, it is cold and sterile, and I was not happy seeing a Chekhov play in the white on white drawing room. In prior productions, the set has always been cozy and warm. Ralph Funicello's set contains long, long, long large windows overlooking nothing on stage right. These windows are progressively smaller as they go all the way back to the wall. Frankly, this looks like an airport corridor. Sometimes the actors are in the back and their conversations cannot be heard. It looks like it should be in Noel Coward's characters on this set.

Carey Perloff should be congratulated for directing this production; she is able to get human feeling out of the actors in this sterilized set. One of the actors after the performance told me that the set designer was trying to show the vastness and whiteness of Russia in this set. That's all well and good but I still did not like the cold set.

The Three Sisters runs thru June 8th at ACT, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit Urinetown, the Musical opens on June 24th and will run until July 27th.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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