Temple Repertory Theater's Russian tale is a strong company debut.
Temple Repertory Theater is not a typical new theater company. It’s a huge company, with about 65 directors, designers, actors and technicians from Temple University’s Department of Theater (including artistic director Dan Kern) dedicated to producing large-ensemble dramas rarely seen in today’s climate of miniaturized plays and productions. TRT’s cast is primarily professional actors (including a Barrymore winner and Obie Award winner) enrolled in Temple’s acting MFA program. But despite its size, the TRT is starting off small, making an auspicious debut with a cozy staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters .
The play, written in 1900, begins at the onset of the 20th century in the country home of the Prozorov family, where Andréy (Carl Granieri) lives with his three sisters, Masha (Kate Czajkowski), Olga (Yvette Ganier) and Irina (Geneviève Perrier). Stuck in a backwater town, the unhappy clan longs to return to cosmopolitan Moscow. “Life is choking us,” moans Masha, who recoils from what she views as the coarseness and vulgarity of the town’s citizens.
Melodrama was the most popular style of theater in turn-of-the-century Russia, and, as a commercial playwright, Chekhov was writing to that audience. But through the trysts, infidelities and a bloody duel, Chekhov’s play is strikingly natural, lacking the off-putting feeling that the characters are pawns in the service of plot twists and overflowing passions.
Likewise, the events Kern’s Sisters seem to happen naturally. Everything about the production is in service of the actors, most notably the arrangement of the audience. Instead of occupying the seats in Tomlinson Theater’s large auditorium, the audience is seated in a semi-circle on the stage, which feels almost like being a visitor to the family’s country home. It makes the large-scale work more intimate; at times, the actors are so close you can nearly feel their breath on your face. But design-wise, the seating arrangement is awkward and problematic. The onstage audience limits Dirk Durossette’s set, which is effective at serving the actors but doesn’t quite evoke a large estate.
The frustrated characters soldier on in search of love, work and a reason to live. The only satisfied character is Andréy’s horrid wife, Natasha (an excellent Rebecca Rich), who obsessively dotes on her children and manages the house and its inhabitants with an iron fist. She alone seems to have found her purpose in life, and it’s noteworthy that she is the play’s least sympathetic character.
The sisters, meanwhile, linger in rural obscurity, unable to find either a man or a job to satisfy them. “There is no poetry in it,” says Irina, explaining her unhappiness with her job at a telegraph office. Irina eventually marries one of the soldiers (the likeable Tuzenbach adroitly played by the likeable David Mackay), but while he’s a good man, the union brings her little joy. “People don’t marry for love, they marry because they’re supposed to,” Olga attempts to comfort her sister.
Only Masha finds real love, striking up a heated relationship with Vershinin. But in Chekhov’s bleak universe, that, too, is joyless. Vershinin is unhappily married, but with two daughters, he has no intention of leaving his wife.
With no prospects to speak of, only the dream of Moscow gives the family hope. But as time passes, it seems less and less likely that they will see their beloved city again.
With her gentle demeanor, Ganier’s Olga is the family’s maternal figure. Conflict makes her physically ill, her soft exterior masks a toughness. In Ganier’s performance, Olga is a kindhearted, decent woman willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her family.
The play begins at Irina’s 20th birthday party, and Perrier plays the youngest sister as a wide-eyed ingénue in a performance that, while competent, leaves us wishing for more. Perrier captured a Barrymore award for her flawless performance under Kern’s direction in Lantern Theater Company’s Skylight ; here, her Irina is appropriately idealistic, but we don’t get a real sense of her desperation at being marooned in this rural hamlet.
The production’s best performance comes from Czajkowski, who is sensational as Masha. A crafty, elegant actor, Czajkowski endows Masha with an intriguing air of mystery. Her porcelain-doll features appear fragile, but appearances are misleading: Desperately unhappy in her marriage to the timid Kulygin (a wonderfully nerdy David Ingram) she’s the only sister to stand up to Natasha’s bullying, and she dares to fall in love with Vershinin despite knowing it will not end well. After the inevitable breakup, Czajkowski grieves with a quiet intensity that’s frightening and moving.
While Kern doesn’t bend over backwards to point a blinking sign at the play’s parallels with the present day, he purposefully keeps the era ambiguous, playing up the universal, timeless theme of the sadness of watching dreams slip away, of finding yourself living a life that you never intended to live. Even though the characters are a century out of time, you may ask yourself, as David Byrne did, “How did I get here?” ■
Through Aug. 1.
1301 W. Norris St.