A version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters opened last night in a collaboration between Hart House Theatre and the Howland Company. It’s described as “Adapted and directed by Paolo Santalucia after Chekhov” . What this means is that is given a contemporary Canadian setting with changed character names and so forth. The structural purpose of each scene, pretty much each speech, remains the same but the words are not a literal translation. And, Alex Vershinin is a woman lieutenant colonel in the RCAF which gives a very different spin to her “affair” with Masha.
It actually works pretty well. The status differences of the characters are subtly but clearly indicated. The basic plot lines are respected but the setting allows for more incisive, less stilted, speech patterns in both conversations and monologues. Where the setting or incidents could be problematic, they are sketched so lightly that it’s not intrusive. The obvious examples are the Nic/Val duel which is clearly a duel without anything actually being said and the “doctor nature” of Ivan which is underplayed (no doubt to the relief of the CPSO). But the sense of impending doom is nicely transferred from the social conditions of pre-revolutionary Russia to Canada’s pending climate apocalypse.
It’s a large cast and they work well together to create a well paced and often very funny end result. Ruth Goodwin does a great job of making Natasha truly, as her husband describes her, “a monster”. She gets some very clever help from costume designer Nancy Anne Perrin. The sisters; Olga (Hallie Seline), Masha (Caroline Toal) and Irina (Shauna Thompson) are suitably contrasted. Olga is the bedrock growing in confidence as she becomes a local notable, the school principal, able to employ in her own right the aging servant Anfisa sensitively played by Kyra Harper. Masha’s frustration with her high school teacher husband and his milieu is palpable and her falling for Alex not at all surprising. Dan Mousseau’s portrayal of the earnest but often cringeworthy husband Theo is physically and vocally effective. Thompson somehow manages to make Irina’s sharing in her sisters’ longing for a return to the city convincing, even though she has no memory of it and her final scene with the doomed Nic is well done.
Ben Yoganathan is quietly convincing as the ineffectual brother Andre. Robert Persichini’s Ivan is very complete and entirely convincing as the drunk who has seen better days and Christine Horne makes the gender switch for Alex seem natural and somehow right. Cameron Laurie’s Nic is a straightforward, not very bright and likeable which contrasts nicely with his chum/nemesis the really creepy Val played by Maher Sinno. The chemistry across the board is excellent which helps with the timing so necessary to pull off the often incongruous humour.
To sum up it’s an effective adaptation of Chekhov. It’s still Chekhov, so it’s mostly unhappy people making other unhappy people even unhappier but the undercurrent of black humour that runs through the piece certainly comes through.
Chekhov’s Three Sisters runs at Hart House Theatre until November 12th. Photo credits Dahlia Katz.