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SISTAHS AND SOLDIERS: Love, loss, and passion burn in marvelous "Three Sisters"

A farewell to arms that leaps off the stage
 
COLUMBIA, Mo 4/3/14 (Review) -- It's not easy avoiding the pitfalls that await theatrical companies brave enough to attempt new interpretations of Anton Chekhov plays.

Notoriously difficult to perform -- let alone adapt or update -- the Russian master relies as much on the unspoken as the spoken to tell his stories, a serious challenge for the stage.   Chekhov himself was unhappy with the play's first run in 1901 because he thought it failed to embrace the subtleties.

But with their updated take on Chekhov's Three Sisters, Elizabeth Braaten-Palmieri and Columbia's GreenHouse Theatre Project inject the 110-year old, 4-act production with a marvelous young energy the playwright would surely enjoy.  Their performances leap off an immersive, expansive, and yet intimate stage, PS: Gallery transformed into theatre-in-the-round.

The production made me think of a kinetic Downton Abbey set in Russia, and the three sisters as "sistahs," an American spin that could save their souls from Chekhovian extinction, if only they can find that inner strength.   "A sistah has your back and you have hers," the urban slang dictionary tells us. "She is a woman you can count on throughout time."

Olga the eldest (played by Emily Adams); Masha, the middle (Elizabeth Braaten-Palmieri); and Irina, the baby (Bethany Taff) are a trio of unhappy-but-hopeful twenty-somethings stuck in a garrison town outside Moscow, their childhood home and now, an object of desire. 
 
Aristocracy lingers in their blood, but the death of their father and the looming loss of their Motherland have left the trio with dim futures amidst troops who come and go from their little town like ants, each man taking away another small bite of the community's soul.

The sisters' only brother, the ne'er-do-well Andrei (Rob Glauz) has mortgaged their home to pay off bad wagers and married a sociopath, Rhian McLean in a gripping turn as Natasha.   Glauz delivers Andrei as hopelessly naive, his pleading eyes and weak self-image no match for Natasha's explosive demands.
 
McLean enthralls as a girl from the other side of the tracks, who joins the family in clothes Masha calls "not just ugly or unfashionable, but sad."  Quickly devolving into a manipulative, obsessive-compulsive bitch, Natasha cheats on her new husband and -- in a mind-blower of a scene that comes out of nowhere -- dresses down the family's aging maid Anfisa (DeeDee Folkerts) with unprovoked but withering verbal blows. 

It's one of many jolts for which Three Sisters is famous

Adams gives us a wise and weary Olga, a force of calm against what another character calls "the hurricane on the horizon": social, economic, and cultural pressures devouring the old Russian order like they did the landed classes in Downton's Edwardian England.

Though she has two men vying for her affections, Taff as Irina longs to fall in love but cannot, and who can blame her, with all the dysfunctional lovers in her midst?   Taff is sweet, eager, heartfelt, and endearing -- perfectly paired with the charming Bryson Bruce as Tuzenbach, a baron and lieutenant who longs to leave the military, marry Irina, and live -- well, you know.

Avoiding spoilers, I won't tell you how that love story comes out, only that it involves the other man who wants Irina, Jarrod Beck as the wildly-conflicted Solyony, delivering the night's widest emotional range.  In zero to sixty, Beck goes from lovable huckster to raging man-child, in "where did THAT come from?" moments that startle the audience each time they pop.

Playing Masha as sly, cynical, sarcastic, vulnerable, and smoldering, Braaten-Palmieri is nothing short of terrific, energizing the stage like a trigger-controlled emotional roller-coaster, brooding one minute, laughing the next.  
 
And why not?  She is as in love with the marvelous Scott MacDonald as Vershinin as she is out of love with her sweet but boorish husband Kulygin (Alex Hoge, whose sonorous voice and young-Dan Aykroyd looks make him perfectly cast).

"I love, love, love that man," Masha gushes about Vershinin, a soldier-philosopher stuck with a suicidal wife.  His musings lift his mind while circumstance traps his body.  "We Russians are supposed to be such lofty thinkers," he notes. "Our heads are in the clouds, but our feet are in the mud."

Masha's emotional breakdown toward the play's end is something to see, as Braaten-Palmieri slowly collapses, at first in Vershinin's awaiting arms, and then alone, in the center of the audience, all a-melt in a cleansing wash of tears.    Vershinin and the other soldiers must leave, taking with them perhaps the last chance the sisters have for happiness.
 
Propping the family up as it confronts the storm are Addison Myers as the retired alcoholic army doctor Chebutykin, who falls off the wagon after a fire destroys much their town;  Ian Matthew Sobule as Fedotik, part jester, part troubadour; and DeeDee Folkerts as the competent servant Anfisa, a vestige of the life the sisters once enjoyed.

Sobule and Myers deliver the evening's comic relief, earnestly lovable as they work to raise the sisters' spirits through one disaster after the next. 
 
Holding forth on the advantages of marriage over solitude, Chebutykin -- who boards at their house but hasn't paid rent in months -- suddenly stops himself with a well-timed "Oh, who gives a shit!"  
 
When he later tells the sisters the first thing he's forgotten in old age -- whether or not their mother, the unrequited love of his life -- ever loved him back, we see a heartbreaking revelation that's both humorous -- and ominous.

Look at me and see the fate that could await each of you.   Will the three sisters perish?   Or will they find their inner sistahs and survive -- or even triumph?  

You'll just have to go and find out.

Three Sisters plays again tonight thru Sunday at PS: Gallery

Photographs by Anastasia Pottinger

-- Mike Martin   



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