May 27, 2015


The Arts

Somewhat stiff Sisters lacks light touch

From left, Monica Reis, Samantha Walters, Emilie Reis, Gerhard Wiebe and Matthew Stefan.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

From left, Monica Reis, Samantha Walters, Emilie Reis, Gerhard Wiebe and Matthew Stefan.

It's good to finally meet Olga, Masha and Irina after all the liberties that have been taken at their expense during ChekhovFest.

In this straightforward Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre revival of Three Sisters, the Russian playwright's 1901 masterpiece, none of the title characters is chowing down on neighbours or singing and dancing up a storm, yet the cultured trio endure some casting inconsistencies here, too.

That's understandable for a non-professional troupe that has a limited pool on which a director can draw to find actors to play the Prozorov trio, the sisters act who long for the bright lights of a far-away Moscow but who are doomed to live out their days in a provincial backwater that stifles everything but their dreams.

The way the Russian capital is constantly and dreamily glorified should have made the Prozorovs spokes-sisters for pre-revolutionary Moscow tourist ads. It soon becomes apparent that the destination is only a symbol of the rich, meaningful life that is beyond their reach.

The clock strikes 12 as the play begins in their dead father's home. Time is running out on them (and their brother Andrei) and they know it. Olga, the eldest, has an aversion to work that is causing chronic headaches. Irina, the youngest, is helpless to prevent the radiance that is so evident on her 20th birthday from draining away. Prickly Masha, dressed in black and mourning her dead-end life, is bored and hostile with her dull husband, Kulygin.

The 165-minute tragic comedy stands, as most Three Sisters do, on Masha's affair with the unhappily married artillery officer Vershinin. The WMT production wobbles.

First, Monica Reis's Masha obviously looks older than Flora Wiebe's spinster Olga, while Jeff Madden seems long in the tooth to play Vershinin and make him a potent romantic character. It's hard to believe the formidable Masha is infatuated with such a spent force, a philosopher who blathers on unconvincingly about an unimaginable but glorious future centuries away. Surely, she's not that desperate.

It's also creepy when John F. Wiebe's Solyony comes on to Irina, who could be his daughter.

Former Winnipegger Susan Coyne's adaptation offers clarity but, generally, the acting is unable to lift the script out of its Chekhovian mood. The cast seems more preoccupied with getting out all the words than enhancing their meaning. Their performances feel directed rather than natural.

As the plays darkens, even the comedy can't cut the unhappiness, although the cold-weather comments always generated chuckles on opening night. Masha's teacher husband, with his ridiculously turned-up moustache, is a bit of a buffoon, while Solyony earns the description of "weird duck."

Chekhov is said to have never created an outright evil character, but Andrei's wife, Natasha, must come closest. As portrayed by Constance Wiebe, she is a total mean girl who transitions from ingratiating fiancée to domineering manipulator, trying to push the sisters out of their house.

Samantha Walters' Irina earns empathy, especially when her world falls apart. Gerhard Wiebe is convincing as an old drunk who once cured the girls' illnesses but is now sick at heart.

Chekhov's sisters never get to where they want to go -- and neither does the audience with this only passable production.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 D3

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