Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Three Sisters


By Anton Chekhov. Directed by Christopher McElroen. The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. (CLOSED)

The response to the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Three Sisters leaves me wondering whether any of these critics saw the same play. CurtainUp's Gregory Wilson considers this the best Chekhov of the season (a season which included Ian Rickson's celebrated production of The Seagull), while Time Out NY's Adam Feldman felt pretty much the opposite. New York Times's Neil Genzlinger wasn't too thrilled with the show, but did like Roger Guenveur Smith's Vershinin, while The Village Voice's Christopher Grobe praised almost everything except Smith's performance.

CurtainUp A
(Gregory A. Wilson) In the end the real credit for the success of this production has to go to director and CTH co-founder Christopher McElroen, whose interpretive touches are uncannily accurate. McElroen strikes every right note, from intelligent and energetic staging to pacing to coherency of theme, and the result is a truly memorable performance. I saw a version of "Three Sisters" years ago in Seattle and found it competent but forgettable; in light of this superb production, though, I think more may have been wrong with that first take than I had ever considered. At his best, Chekhov can tap into the deep truths of humanity as well as any playwright, and this is Chekhov at his best. If you only have time for one work of classic theater this year, make it this one.

Village Voice A-
(Christopher Grobe) The production is full of excellent performances, which you can watch in minute detail thanks to the intimacy of the wide, shallow stage nestled between two banks of seating. The familiar dynamic, for instance, among the three sisters (played by Sabrina LeBeauf, Amanda Mason Warren, and Carmen Gill) is finicky and finely tuned. One performance, though, threatens to derail the whole project. As Vershinin, Roger Guenveur Smith seems to have landed from a different planet, or at least a different play. Sing-songy and glassy-eyed, this Vershinin--usually a pivotal figure in the play's romantic plot and moral debate--seems, instead, like an absurd bit-part.

Variety C-
(Sam Thielman) This is a busy play, and what it needs most is a firm hand guiding the audience from playing area to playing area as the show's interlocking stories unfold. The danger a director working with actors of varying skill levels on "Three Sisters" (or any Chekhov play) faces is distraction, and that's this production's biggest problem. When Solyony (Phillip Christian, overdoing the weirdness of a weird character) and Tuzenbach begin to debate, it's hard not to mentally wander across the stage to see what some of the other characters are doing... The show is aided immeasurably by designer Troy Hourie, whose all-Persian-carpets-all-the-time set is slowly rolled up and taken away as the Prozorov estate decays. Even with its many flaws, it's difficult not to recommend this production. "Three Sisters" is so hard to stage that it doesn't get done often enough, so theatergoers should jump at the chance to be moved by images like Masha, simultaneously pitiable and infuriating, weeping over her lost lover before her awkward, loving husband Kulygin (Jonathan Peck). There's a great deal of moving characterization here, but a better staging would provide much, much more.

The New York Times C-
(Neil Genzlinger) From Midtown, the subway ride up to the Harlem Stage Gatehouse feels a bit like the trip to Yankee Stadium: similar duration; roughly the same direction. For the current staging of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the theater, that seems fitting, because this is a production that, like the Yankees, has an assortment of stars but somehow never feels like a team effort. Maybe this is intentional on the part of Christopher McElroen, who directed this joint production of Harlem Stage and the Classical Theater of Harlem. This is, after all, a play about dissolution — of relationships, of dreams, of a social order — and a certain directionlessness is built into its characters. Still, the title siblings, different as they are from one another, ought to seem as if they were sisters; the others who populate their insular world ought to feel like old acquaintances. Here the actors often appear to be building their characters in a vacuum.

Theatermania D+
(Dan Balcazo) No one can sit still for very long in Classical Theater of Harlem's revival of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, now at Harlem Stage. The characters are constantly alighting from the furniture, repositioning themselves, and sometimes even spinning around in circles. This restlessness may be an outward reflection of Chekhov's theme of discontentment that runs throughout the play, but it's also indicative of the uneven quality of director Christopher McElroen's production, which tends to skim the surface of the work rather than delving into its depths. As eldest sister Olga, Sabrina LeBeauf races through the majority of her lines without connecting to the meaning behind the words. However, she's much better when not speaking, and some of her nonverbal reactions to other characters are acutely expressive. Middle sister Masha is played by the charismatic Amanda Mason Warren, who does a fine job throughout most of the evening, but slips into an overly melodramatic mode towards the play's conclusion. As youngest sister Irina, Carmen Gill does just enough to convey her character, but doesn't go that extra step to make a memorable performance.

Time Out NY F+
(Adam Feldman)Christopher McElroen's blobby production of the play is not, shall we say, Moscow-ready: What should be theater about a community comes off as community theater. Sabrina LeBeauf plays Olga, the spinster schoolteacher; Amanda Mason Warren is the moody Masha; and Carmen Gill is the dreamy Irina. They have moments here and there (Warren when she is being emotional, Gill when she isn't), as do Reg E. Cathey as the dissolute doctor and especially Josh Tyson as the kindly baron. But small moments of credibility can't compensate for the production's gallery of slapdash portraits.

CurtainUp A 13; Village Voice A- 12; Variety C- 6; New York Times C- 6; Theatermania D+ 5; TONY F+ 2; 44/6 = 7.33 (C)

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