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
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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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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Non-Equity Jeff Awards Winners

Looks like there were a few big winners at the Non-Equity Jeff Awards given out last night, including 5 total awards given to Lifeline Theatre for The Island of Dr. Moreau. Another 4 awards were given to Theo Ubique for their intimate production of Cabaret.

Special Non-Equity Jeff Awards were given out to Raven Theatre’s founders – Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro.

Congratulations to all!


Non-Equity Jeff Awards Winners

Production – Play
The Island of Dr. MoreauLifeline Theatre

Production – Musical
Jerry Springer – The OperaBailiwick Repertory Theatre
1776Signal Ensemble Theatre

MachosTeatro Luna

Director – Play
Greg KolackcolumbinusRaven Theatre

Director – Musical
Fred AnzevinoCabaretTheo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

New Work
Teatro Luna & Coya PazMachos – Teatro Luna

New Adaptation
Robert KauzlaricThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Musical
Elizabeth LanzaCan-CanCircle Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Play
Vanessa GreenwayThe Constant WifeGriffin Theatre Company

Actor in a Principal Role – Musical
Jeremy TragerCabaret – Theo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
Sam WoottenGross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar WildeBohemian Theatre Ensemble

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
Danielle BrothersCabaret – Theo Ubique Theatre Co. i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
Kathleen RuhlDolly West’s KitchenTimeLine Theatre Company

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
Jeremy RillJerry Springer – The Opera – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
Hans FleischmannIn a Dark Dark HouseProfiles Theatre
Ron WellsA Prayer for My DaughterMary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Scenic Design
Michael Menendian & Leif OlsenThe Night of the Iguana – Raven Theatre

Costume Design
Elizabeth Shaffer An Ideal Husband – Circle Theatre

Lighting Design
Kevin D. GawleyThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre

Sound Design
Stephen PtacekFaster – the side project

Brenda DidierThe Life – Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Original Incidental Music
Victoria DeIorioThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre
Gregor Mortis & Mikhail Fiksel A Lie of the MindStrawdog Theatre Company
Kevin O’Donnell The NutcrackerThe House Theatre of Chicago

Music Direction
Joshua Stephen Kartes Cabaret – Theo Ubique Theatre Co i/a/w Beverle Bloch & Michael James

Mask Design
Kimberly G. MorrisThe Island of Dr. Moreau – Lifeline Theatre

Review – “Dolly West’s Kitchen” at TimeLine Theatre

Dolly West Kitchen eggProduction: Dolly West’s Kitchen
Producers: TimeLine Theatre (map)
Review: It’s often said that the heart of every home is the kitchen.  In Dolly West’s kitchen however, this is an understatement – the kitchen comes to an emotional full boil during the extent of this adventursome and often-hillarious work.  The play, taking place in war-time Ireland, revolves around the three West-family women: matriarch Rima, free-spirited Dolly and tightly-wound Esther.  Though all three women appear strong, much of their choices and present-day predicaments stem from theif womanizing father, who has long ago left the family (leaving Dolly to escape to Italy where she ends up running a restaurant, only returning to Ireland when Mussolini comes to full power; Esther marrying a weak but reliable Ned Horgan, who Esther does not love, but chooses because she knows he will never leave her). Soon Dolly West’s kitchen comes to life with the appearance of three mail visitors – Dolly’s bisexual ex-boyfriend Alec Redding, and two American soldiers – the quiet Jamie O’Brien, and his blatantly gay cousin Joshua Rollins. 

Playwright Frank McGuinness creates wide swathes of lyrical dialogue, interspersed with some sexually-charged outbursts, as Dolly West’s Kitchen lays out for us the complex issues occuring in war-time Ireland, juxtaposed with issues of sexual identity and the results of a dysfunctional family history.  

Strengths: This show is a perfect example of the powerful ensemble acting that Chicago is known for.  The womens’ performances are flawless, especially the women on the extremes: the aged, cantankerous matriarch Rima West (played by the mesmerizing Kathleen Ruhl), and the spunky, lower-class teenage maid Anna Owens (portrayed by the energetic Sara Hoyer).  Accompanying these two are the actresses playing the West sisters, Kat McDonnell and Danica Ivancevic, (these two who have shared their impressive talents with Chicago in recent productions  – Kat McDonnell in The Sparrow; Danica Ivancevic in Faith Healer).  The set is brilliant – a cozy kitchen which thrusts out diagonally into the audience, a subtle garden on one side of the kitchen and an overturned boat near the shore on the other side of the kitchen. Director Kimberly Senior should be commended for harnessing all of this talent into one eloquent voice.   

Weaknesses: Even a strong cast and ingenious set can’t totally rescue the weaknesses of the script. For example, we are immediately asked to accept that a World War II era Irish family administers full acceptance of the several gay characters in the play – including Dolly’s brother, Dolly’s ex-lover (actually presented as being bisexual) and an American soldier who consequently becomes the brother’s lover.  Oddly, then, when looking at the historical display in the lobby during intermission, we are told that homosexuality was abhorred in Ireland at the time.  Furthermore, the play’s final scenes occur once the war is over, and we witness the psychologically debilitating effect the war has had on all of the men (including the two Americans who, one would think, would have gone home after the war rather than back to Dolly’s kitchen).  Considering how complex such issues of distress caused by seeing the ugliness of war, the playwright chooses to end the play with several Hallmark-moments as each soldier miraculously gains their samity, and life is beautiful once more.      

Aside: Altough this specific play didn’t work for me, I have always enjoyed TimeLine’s exemplary productions.  Their plays reliably present a historic viewpoint, including the creation of study guides and lobby displays.  In a whacky way, I like to think of TimeLine as a theatrical version of “School House Rock” – where as a child I was greatly entertained by these Saturday-morning cartoons, while coercively learning how a bill gets passed in Congress, the anatomy of a conjunction, and when to use an exclamation point !! 

Summary: Though Dolly West’s Kitchen is impeccably performed, looks great and has a plethora of hilarious lines, the play sabotages itself through a confusing depiction of 1940’s gay acceptance as well as a Hallmark-esque view of complex catastophes which are conveniently mended in the end. 

Rating: ««½

Personnel and Show Information

Playwright: Frank McGuinness
Director: Kimberly Senior
Sets: Brian Sidney Bembridge
Lights: Charles Cooper
Costumes: Christine Conley
Sound Design: Tamara Roberts
Props: Galen Pejeau
Stage Manage: Ana Espinosa
Dialect Coach: Eva Breneman
Featuring: Cliff Chamberlain (Alec)
Aaron Golden (Jamie)
Sara Hoyer (Anna)
Danica Ivancevic (Esther)
Kat McDonnell (Dolly)
Niall McGinty (Justin)
Mark Richard (Ned)
Joshua Rollins (Marco)
Kathleen Ruhl (Rima)
Location: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Dates: Through March 22, 2008
Show Times: Wednesday-Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 4 and 8pm, Sunday 2pm.