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Reality Chekhov

Fpct Adds Fresh Energy to the Famously Subdued Three Sisters

Futility Vehicle: Katherine Lyons, Cherie Weinert, Steve Kovalic, and Virginia Hess act beautifully useless.

By John Barry | Posted 2/12/2003

Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Friel

"What can you say? Life is hard." As Colonel Vershinin makes his exit with this platitude at the end of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, people tend to pull out their hankies. But try a line like that out at the dinner table. It'll get a few shrugs, and maybe a few laughs. And that's why Chekhov called Three Sisters a comedy. If you can't see what's funny about a line like that, you probably won't understand why everyone's crying.

Olga (Katherine Lyons), Masha (Cherie Weinert), and Irina (Virginia Hess) are the three twentysomething Prozorov sisters. They're stuck out in the boondocks with their brother, Andrey (Steve Kovalic), 15 miles from the nearest train station. They've spent their lives learning languages and reading books. And what do they have to show for it? Olga is teaching. Masha has married Kulygin (Scott Knox), a teacher who looks like an overweight Groucho Marx. Andrey, who was going to be a professor, winds up getting hitched to a nasty little nag named Natasha (Kathleen Taylor). And Irina is practically an old maid at 23.

The Fells Point Corner Theatre production of Three Sisters doesn't come with a laugh track, but it doesn't lose itself in a collective swoon, either. There are moments of dead air and bursts of melodrama: These are potholes that are tough to avoid in Chekhov. But when the FPCT cast hits its stride, it fuels an energetic, passionate production that succeeds at a difficult task: depicting three different sisters, each one unhappy in her own way, but each with her eyes focused on the same unattainable goal--Moscow, happiness, and love.

Masha falls in love with married Colonel Vershinin (Mark Steckbeck), but Weinert makes it clear that this affair is more of an expression of impatience than romance. The young Irina, meanwhile, begins the play as an innocent 20-year-old, and ends the story as a somewhat jaded fiancée of the lovelorn Baron Nikolay (Anthony Scimonelli). In a remarkable performance as Olga, Lyons plays the sister who is most passionate, and most isolated, of the three. All the sisters react to their predicament with stiff upper lips; even the breakdowns are subdued.

The play gets its jump-start when Vershinin comes to town. Steckbeck injects a manic energy into his portrayal of the colonel, who enters spouting amateur philosophy with an overwhelming earnestness. And that sets the tone for the production. The nasty Natasha, the boozer doctor, the magnanimous cuckold, the unrequited lover, and the moody poet all give the impression of people who spend their lives clamoring to be heard but who never quite rise to the occasion. By emphasizing chaos over melancholia, director Barry Feinstein's skillful, quick-paced production reminds us that Chekhov wasn't meant to be mood music.

FPCT doesn't have much stage space, but Feinstein uses it effectively to create an intimate, intense production. Snippets of dialogue don't float off into the distance, as they did in the ghostly, ethereal atmosphere of the Towson University production of this play last fall, where isolated characters seemed to be waiting to hear their own echoes. Feinstein gets characters to interrupt one another, and trip over one another, and bump into one another. There are moments when they seem to be pushing Chekhov a little above the speed limit, but for the most part the play is a hubbub of activity and conversation that makes even existential anguish seem like a communal effort. That seems to be what Three Sisters is all about: Since only the chosen few are happy, futility is a game that the whole family can play.

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