REVIEW: Three Sisters (Piven Theatre Workshop)

   
   

Chekhov’s naturalist classic enjoys lively revival at Piven

 

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Piven Theatre Workshop presents
 
Three Sisters
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Adapted by
Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Joyce Piven
at
Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
thru November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

For sisters Olga (Joanne Underwood), Masha (Saren Nofs-Snyder), and Irina (Ravi Batista), the road to Moscow is long and bumpy in Piven Theatre’s finely acted, elegantly directed production of Chekhov’s naturalist classic Three Sisters. Tethered to their provincial town by occupation, spouse, and status, they struggle to find the meaning in their tiresome existence, dreaming of a utopian Moscow that is just out of reach. As their hopes fall apart around them, they learn that the only people they can trust are each other, and the three actresses develop the relationship between the Smith, Barnes, Nofs-Snyder - Vwomen beautifully. Under the guidance of director Joyce Piven, the relationships between the sisters and the men around them come to life, creating believable drama that is thick with emotion.

For Olga and Irina, the oldest and youngest, returning to Moscow is not near the fantasy it is for their middle sister Masha, in a loveless marriage with tenuous schoolteacher Kulygin (Brett T. Barnes), and Nofs-Snyder’s melancholic portrayal of Masha captures the sense of helplessness that defines the character. When the handsome Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin (Daniel Smith) enters Masha’s life, she is given a reason to live, and their romance smolders despite Smith’s distracting dialect. The first kiss between the two is one of the highlights of the production, a wonderfully awkward moment filled with hesitation that erupts into lust as the creaking of the wooden sofa breaks through their sensual silence.

Masha is the heart, Irina the soul, and Olga the mind of the play, allowing these core elements to dictate the direction of their lives. Meanwhile, their brother Andrei’s (Dave Belden) wife Natasha (Amanda Hartley) lacks all three, and she sucks them from her husband as the story progresses. A petulant, anxious ice queen with a superiority complex and unhealthy levels of self-righteousness, Natasha is played with villainous gusto by Hartley, who fearlessly depicts the character’s power trip once she marries Andrei. Her treatment of house servant Anfisa (Kathleen Ruhl, mother of adapter Sarah) is appalling, and creates great conflict with Olga, who cherishes Anfisa like a member of the family.

Ruhl, Batista - HDirector Joyce Piven uses the space beautifully, crafting spatial relationships to build tension between characters that explode when they finally come together. Solyony (Jay Reed), the play’s most combustible character, hates everything and never backs down from an argument, his intense misery venturing into comedic territory in its exaggeration. His love for Irina, a love shared by Baron Tuzenbach (Andy Hager), is unreturned by the youngest sister, who is more concerned with discovering fulfilling work than a man. Batista gives an emotionally resonant performance, especially as Irina begins to understand the kind of work available to her in town, but there’s a maturity in her voice and carriage that takes away from the character’s youthful energy. There is an early moment when Vershinin describes the sisters’ old home in Moscow and the older two’s faces become teary-eyed at the memory while Irina struggle to recapture the image, likely too young to truly remember. It’s a small moment, but it helps solidify her position in the trinity.

It’s a good time to be a Chekhov fan in Chicago. Goodman’s The Seagull (our review ★★★★) as the theatrical theory and situational humor, while Three Sisters eloquently showcases Chekhov’s philosophical genius and occasionally nihilist world view. As the lights go down on the three sisters standing united against the world, it’s like they are watching Moscow burn before their very eyes. The power of these three women together is the play’s beauty, the reality of their circumstance its tragedy.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Cast:

Ravi Batista* (Irina)
Saren Nofs-Snyder (Masha)
Joanne Underwood (Olga)
Brent T. Barnes (Kulygin)
Dave Belden (Andrei)
Marcus Davis (Fedotik)
Kevin D’Ambrosio (Ferapont)
John Fenner Mays (Chebutykin)
Andy Hager (Tuzenbach)
Amanda Hartley (Natasha)
Jacob Murphy (Rode)
Jay Reed (Solyony)
Kathleen Ruhl (Anfisa)
Dan Smith (Vershinin)
Susan Applebaum (Understudy – Anfisa)

 

Production Staff:

Producer: Jodi Gottberg
Production Stage Manager: Wendy Woodward*
Scenic Design: Aaron Menninga
Technical Director: Bernard Chin
Lighting Design: Andrew Iverson & Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Costume Design: Bill Morey
Composition & Sound Design: Collin Warren
Sound Engineer: Alex Bradford Ruhlin
Properties Design: Jesse Gaffney
Asst. Director & Dramaturg: Stephen Fedo
Asst. Stage Manager: Chad Duda
Asst. to the Director: Skye Robinson Hillis
Costume Assistant: Melissa Ng
Production Intern: Nathaniel Williams

* Member, Actors Equity Association

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REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents
   
Dead Letter Office
   
by Phillip Dawkins
directed by
David Dieterich Gray
at
Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18  |  tickets: $17-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.

Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.

The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.

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Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.

The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.

It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.

Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

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