Three Sisters by Buoyant Theatre Collective

Sad lives in a search for meaning: Luke Weber

It's hard to watch the plays of Anton Chekhov without thinking about the fate that was just around the corner for these often upper-class characters. Three Sisters was first produced at the turn of the 20th century, less than 20 years before the Russian Revolution was to sweep away their way of life. On the evidence of the play, maybe that wasn't such a bad idea.

Buoyant Theatre Collective's Three Sisters sometimes misses the mark, coming off as cold and bare as the converted warehouse space used for the production. It isn't until the later stages of the second act, as the sad depths of the characters' lives spread out before us, that the company finds the heart of the production.

The titular sisters—Olga, Masha, and Irina—live far from the lights of gentle society, on the family estate in a small Russian city, entertained mainly by the military officers stationed in the town. Young Irina dreams of returning to Moscow, sure she will find her true love on the city's busy streets. Maria hopes for love beyond her older, eccentric husband. And eldest Olga really seems to want some rest, as her work at the local high school consumes her days.

There's a brother too, Andrey, whose shy and awkward demeanor and dreams of science are crushed just as easily as those of his sisters. As the play unfolds, he becomes increasingly bitter as his surface lot in life increases. He gains a wife, children, and a respectable job, all at the cost of his gentle soul.

The idea of "work"—an idealized image of the everyday toil of the common man—runs throughout the play, especially from philosophizing Baron Tuzenbach, who confesses to having had servants deal with his every whim. Now he looks back at his idle life and wonders if he is missing greater fulfillment. While I'm sure the peasants from the nearby farms or the factory workers would gladly educate the Baron on what toil is, his sounding board is mainly his idle military colleagues and the sisters.

As the play progresses—it takes place over several years—the sisters and the men who surround them search for meaning in their lives in any way they can. They try love relationships and secret affairs, but none of it seems to stem the tide they are riding.

Chekhov plays with his characters a lot here, providing some gentle mocking of their ideals before stripping that away to leave them drifting alone in an existential sea. At the play's core are the sisters, who can always rely on one another. The actors, Kelsey Cramer (Olga), Erin Mae Johnson (Masha), and Abigail Nones (Irina) clearly create this bond for us, and their moments alone together in the later part of the production are some of the best.

Eric Eichenlaub is also strong as Baron Tuzenbach, whose love for Irina is never reciprocated. The actor brings out the pain and torment that boils inside the character, who wants to escape from his upbringing to be a real part of the society around him, but also senses the trap his life has built for him. His foil, Solyony, is loud, vulgar, and probably just as lost in life as the Baron. Josh Vogen gets the surface of this all right, but misses the mark on what's inside, or at least, why he tortures the Baron so much that their relationship has such a messy end.

The company as a whole performs well, though the acting in the first scene, a birthday party for Irina, seems very flat. The anger and hopelessness that lie behind the banter ride too close to the surface, draining the moments when those emotions are supposed to truly come out later in the play. I wasn't able to get on a solid footing with the characters before the gears of the plot ground them down.

Director Dionne Laviolette crafts a solid production that lacks the spark to really make Chekhov's play sing. Some of the lesser characters lack definition to the point that I wasn't sure why they were onstage. The show has moments later on that work extremely well, but there are a lot of speeches to get through on the way.

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