'Three Sisters' Adapted from Chekhov and Directed by Paolo Santalucia

The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre, University of Toronto

The company of 'Three Sisters' by Dahlia Katz.

Joe Szekeres

Adaptation of Chekhovian works appears to be in fashion on the Toronto theatre scene these last couple of months. A smart choice to adapt the classics like ‘Three Sisters’ for modern audiences.

After seeing a top-notch ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Crow’s, The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre’s absorbing production of ‘Three Sisters’ hits the boards. I’ve never seen either of these plays in their original form performed live, but these two terrific adaptations assuredly make me want to do so.

Director Paolo Santalucia’s modern-day story adaptation remains dense with information regarding the characters’ relationships with each other and with this world they, at times, just seem merely to inhabit. In his Director’s Note, Santalucia spoke about what it means to yearn for a world these characters deeply and truly cannot return to for many reasons. There are layers upon layers of plot and contextual information underscoring this yearning so audiences will have to remain focused throughout the two hours and forty minutes running time.

But that’s good theatre when we must pay careful attention.

An inviting set design courtesy of Nancy Anne Perrin made me study the playing space for a few minutes. The four suspended palladium windows suggest the grandiosity of the house that was left to the sisters upon their parents’ death. It is a three-level set piece which serves as several important focal points.

Christian Horoszczak’s ultra-fine lighting focuses attention on specific areas of the playing space.
It is Irina’s (Shauna Thompson’s) birthday and people have gathered for a luncheon celebration. She simply appreciates and enjoys the wonders of this day and appreciates just living her life. Her sister Olga (Hallie Seline) is a schoolteacher who is busy marking and preparing her lessons. Olga shares how difficult a challenge the profession has become for her. The other sister Masha (Caroline Toal) sullenly lounges on the couch reading a book. We also meet their brother Andrei (Ben Yoganathan) who is hiding in his room at the top of the show.

Other individuals present at the celebration are part of these sisters’ lives. Ivan (Robert Persichini) who was a friend of the sisters’ deceased parents lives with the girls in the house. He’s obnoxiously loud on account of his drinking problem. The dimwitted elder housekeeper Anfisa (Kyra Harper) experiences difficulties in keeping up with the duties of running the household. We also meet Masha’s husband, Theo (Dan Mousseau at this opening night performance), a teacher at the local school who comes across as a bit of a dweeby know it all which at first is hilarious; however, as the story progresses it’s rather sad when the truth is revealed.

Rounding out the people present at the party are Nicolas (Cameron Laurie) and Val (Maher Sinno) who develop a love interest in Masha. Peter (Ethan Zuchkan) and Carl (Steven Hao). We also meet Natasha (Ruth Goodwin), brother Andrei’s love interest. In the first scene, there is the sense the sisters do not care for Natasha. As the story progresses, it’s clear why they didn’t trust her earlier as she does not turn out to be what’s best for Andrei.

The arrival of Alex Vershinin (Christine Horne) who knew the sisters’ father throws this world into turmoil, especially that of Masha and the world she knows and her relationship with Theo.

Was ‘Three Sisters’ worth doing and worth seeing?

Yes, and yes.

Santalucia has assembled a primo cast of a tightly cohesive ensemble of actors who relish playing Chekhovian characters who often feel immobile in this stasis world where they seem to exist like the spinning top in the picture above. How often during these last two-plus years of the worldwide pandemic have we also felt we were in grave periods of spinning like a top and not going anywhere? This is the reason why that moment of the onstage tableau where the actors watch this gift Irina received on her birthday remains completely etched in my mind.

His clear direction remains carefully controlled throughout as Santalucia made many good choices to keep the plot moving along. For example, creating a modern-day adaptation with colourful vernacular language I’m sure many of us have used at one time in our lives allowed me to make a viable connection to these characters and their fleeting emotions. The moments of humour (and there are quite a few) heighten and underscore even further those poignant moments of emotional connections of love, longing, trust, affection, and time. What also worked nicely for me were the set changes from the actors to indicate the passage of time in moving the props and the adjustment of the lighting design.

Thankfully, Santalucia never allowed the actors to veer out of control emotionally or histrionically as many of the actors deliver engrossing performances. I do have one quibble, though, and I found this with all the characters. At times, enunciation needed clarity especially if the actor was facing upstage delivering a line with a back to the audience. Again, it’s a minor quibble but for someone like myself who does not know the story then it’s important that we are able to follow as much of the plot as we can.

Shauna Thompson, Caroline Toal and Hallie Seline remain consistently believable in their development of three unique siblings who are on their life trajectories. How they arrive at their destination becomes the integral focus.

Thompson’s initial happiness at the top of the show becomes sharply contrasted with her emotional lows at the end. Toal’s longing for the love she knows is missing from her marriage becomes poignantly and viscerally real when Alex leaves. In the final scene between Christine Horne and Caroline Toal, the heartrending goodbye between the two becomes deep-rooted and so highly lamentable that I wondered how Masha would ever recover. A fine moment between them. Seline precisely clinches the tough-as-nails Olga who regretfully recognizes how she didn’t follow Ivan’s advice of “Look for beauty. Look for love. And Don’t look back.”

Robert Persichini is a monstrously gruff and foul-mouthed Ivan whose humanely felt act of generosity tugged at my heartstrings. My head still shakes in astonished disbelief at the mismatched Andrei and Natasha (Ben Yoganathan and Ruth Goodwin) who become so convincingly real in the story that I kept wondering when Andrei would see through Natasha’s fudging, fibs and lies. As the dimwitted housekeeper Anfisa, Kyra Harper’s genuine fear of losing connection to this family during the fire in Act 2 is quite poignant.

I wasn’t prepared for the ultimate reveal of the truth between Nicolas and Val. Both Cameron Laurie and Maher Sinna gave signs of what was about to occur but the shock of the incident certainly made me re-think again about the signs that were there as if something terrible was going to happen. Terrific work here to make me unsuspecting until the eventual does happen.

Final Comments: This modern adaptation of ‘Three Sisters’ brings Chekhov’s messages of personal fulfilment, yearning and longing to heights of clearer understanding for a twenty-first-century audience.

Fresh, invigorating, poignant and sad, ‘Three Sisters’ remains another must-see this fall for Toronto theatre lovers.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

‘Three Sisters’ runs until November 12 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto. For tickets, call (416) 978-2452 or visit harthousetheatre.ca

The Howland Company and Hart House present the premiere of
THREE SISTERS Adapted from Chekhov and Directed by Paolo Santalucia

Lighting Design – Christian Horoszczak,
Set and Costume Design – Nancy Anne Perrin
Sound Design – Andy Trithardt
Stage Management – Kat Chin

Performers: Shauna Thompson, Caroline Toal, Hallie Seline, Ben Yogoanathan, Ruth Goodwin, Kyra Harper, Robert Persichini, Christine Horne, Cameron Louie, Maher Sinno, Ethan Zuchkan, Steven Hao, Dan Mousseau

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