Sister Act

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Please let me enumerate for you three of the things that went wrong during the performance I attended of Theatre of the Expendable’s Three Sisters, an adaptation of the beloved but often bedeviling tragicomedy by Anton Chekhov penned by company’s artistic director, Jesse Edward Rosbrow: Late lighting cues, plus hearing the frazzled board operator call some of them loud enough to be heard (“13—go!”); the scene change between the first and second scenes of Act 2 interrupted by the announcement that the fire department was in the building and, indeed, prowling within the theatre, due to a possible gas leak; the chains of a swing, ostensibly affixed to a water pipe near the ceiling, appearing to give way for a moment, sending the actress sitting on it out of her somber, reflective scene and into a split-second panic.

    Were I feeling ornery and uncharitable, I could easily add some observations about both the adaptation and the production: how a three-hour running time can be rough sledding when you’re huddled inside a postage-stamp-sized, 30-seat house in which the playing area is where the audience is sitting; and how tender and evocative scenes are thwarted when the actors pick up their cues at a snail’s pace. But please also let me enumerate for you three things that went right about the piece, and why, despite the production’s flaws, you still might want to catch it: Six actors play 22 roles, breathlessly whizzing in and out of costume changes, voices, postures and inflections, thus invoking the true meaning and spirit of the word “play”; how the space’s extreme intimacy—with actors performing two feet in front of or beside you—forges a visceral, intimate bond with the audience that submerges you in each scene, ensuring that your attendance is an active, not a passive, experience; how set designer Stephanie Tucci devises different environments—a sitting room, a garden, etc.—without requiring wholesale physical alterations to the space.

    There is no way to know, of course, if Rosbrow first adapted the play and then sought out a venue for it, or if he discovered the venue and then imagined the piece. Either way, the scope of his ambitions for the play far outclasses what the venue will naturally allow; more than four people moving around on this stage resembles the morning rush on the FDR.Yet if you can peek past the too-tight blocking as well as the bizarre moments in which performers and props unintentionally collide, the tale of the Prozorov girls—Olga, Masha and Irina—with their neuroses, penchant for nipping at each other’s heels and nattering about nothing, has an elegiac quality that even misfiring lighting cues and gas leaks cannot assuage.

    Kendall Rileigh plays six roles, but Olga is her focus.The tearier of the three siblings, she is a high school teacher addled by ambivalence toward her work and, in a classic case of cruel Chekhovian irony, is fated to become a headmistress. Similarly, Morgan Anne Zipf’s Masha (plus two other roles) is the studier sibling, zippy compared to the rest, while Caitlin McColl’s Irina (plus two other roles) is the preternatural dreamer, forever casting her eyes toward a return to Moscow, where the family is from, and who marries in the end not for love but for the promise of escape.

    The men in the piece don’t fare as well. Because David Ian Lee, Clinton Lowe and Alexander Yakovleff essay 10 roles between them, it can often be a task to distinguish between characters, especially if you are unfamiliar with the play. Lee, in two roles, comes closest to creating well-defined autonomous characters, as opposed to light suggestions of character that can be forgotten a few moments after appearing.

    Still, given the space’s constraints and Rosbrow’s vision, the production’s threeweek run is sure to be in better shape by the end than the beginning—something even Chekhov would have admired. -- Three Sisters Through Dec. 21, Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 212-868-4444; times vary, $12. --