Theatre Review: “Three Sisters” at Franklin College

Last Thursday night I drove south of Indianapolis to Franklin, Indiana, to see the Franklin College Theatre’s production of “Three Sisters,” written by Anton Chekov, translated by Paul Schmidt, and directed at Franklin by Fine Arts Lecturer Nicolas Crisafulli.

And I tell you, I am a better person for it.  I can cross Chekov off my theatre addict bucket list and admit that it was like nothing I had ever seen before.  I am sure that a lot of it went over my head, but I enjoyed the rush.

Oh, the Unhappiness!

There were four (FOUR!) acts, all set in a small town in Russia and all revolving around a family that has, as you might expect from the title, three sisters, plus a brother.  Their father was a colonel and even though he is now dead, there are still a lot of military personnel hanging around the house.  The sisters moan about wanting to go back to “Moscow!  Moscow!  Moscow!” even though it has been years since they last lived there.  Everyone is unhappy for one reason or another, even Kulygin (Alex Lancaster) the brother-in-law who insists that “I am a happy, happy man.”  (But you know he knows that his wife is having an affair.) 

Of the three sisters, Olga (Megan Fuller) is unhappy because she thinks her life would be better if she were married and because she does not want to be the headmistress of the local school.  Masha (Rachel Konchinsky-Pate) is unhappy because her husband (poor Kulygin) bores her and the man she truly loves (Vershinin, played by Craig Parker) is already married – to a suicidal woman – and has two daughters.  Irina (DeAmber Jaggers) is unhappy because she hates her job but doesn’t want to marry any of the men that want to marry her – neither the romantic military officer, Baron Tuzenbach (Brandon Clark), nor the intense and possibly crazy military officer, Solyony (Alex Roach.)

All three sisters are worried about their brother, Andrey (Zach Morris) because although he plays the violin beautifully, he gambles too much.  He also married a woman they dislike: Natasha (Brittany Burkett.)  Andrey is unhappy because his sisters hate his wife and his wife seems to hate him.  Natasha is unhappy because nothing satisfies her but in the meantime she does seem to enjoy bossing people around.  The old family servant, Anfisa (Gorgi Parks Fulper), is unhappy because Natasha wants to throw her out of her job and home because of her age and disabilities.

Of the other military people that hang out at the house, a doctor named Chebutykin (Robin Roberts) seems cheery enough most of the time, but confesses that he always loved the three sisters’ mother. 

There are two other soldiers – Fedotik (Kole Christian) and Rhode (Hannah Ford) – plus a county courier names Ferapont (Chad Teague.)  They are perhaps not quite as unhappy as the rest and can therefore provide a bit of lightness along with Andrey’s Violin (played by Andi Swan, who provides the pleasure of live violin music to the production.)  But ultimately they, too, are stuck.

No one seems willing or able to just dig in and make the best of things where they are.  In fact, one of the characters says that “happiness is only for our distant descendents.”   

I watched these unhappy people interact with each other over several years and couldn’t help shaking my head over the many ways in which they frittered their lives away.

In other words, I think this play is mostly about yearning and inertia.  Near the beginning of the play, someone says, “We know a lot that’s unnecessary.”  At the end of the play, someone asks, “What difference does it make?” and someone else answers, “If only we knew!  If only we knew.”

The Energy

However, in spite of the bleakness, I left the theatre feeling energized.  I think this was because “Three Sisters” is not just a dysfunctional family drama.  It is also chock-full of symbolism, philosophy, and socio-political commentary presented at a meta level and blended with touches of humor. 

For example, the characters all, at one point in a conversation, suddenly lift their fists and shout in unison, “We have to work!”   At several other points in the play, Barron Tuzenbach says dreamily, “I want to work!” He naively relishes the thought of giving up his honors and wealth and working as a laborer.  I would like to see this play again some time and watch for the content related to the theme of romanticizing/hating work.  I wonder if that is a theme in all of Chekov’s (pardon the expression) work.

Another reason I left feeling energized by this particular production is that in the third act, almost everyone gets a monologue.  Each of the third-act monologues in this production was especially powerful and uniquely conveyed by the actors.  I was fascinated by the deeper perspectives that the monologues provided on both the individual characters and their relationships with each other.

The Staging

The staging was energizing, too.  The show took place in Franklin College’s lovely black box theatre space.  It is called The’a^tre Margot.  (I’m sorry: I don’t know how to put the accents over the letters the way they were in the program.)

This production was done “in the round,” which meant the audience sat on all sides of the stage.  Director Nicolas Crisafulli also designed the set.  The stage floor was two overlapped diamonds, with paths leading off in four directions to the imaginary rest of the house, so the audience didn’t sit in a tidy, round circle but rather in jagged clumps.  Tall, narrow, firmly-anchored, white columns of fabric dappled in shadow and light suggested both trees and architecture.  Fringed white flag shapes that hung from the ceiling suggested a questioning of patriotism or a loss of connection.  When the play opened, the sisters’ furniture was strewn with flowers that the sisters gathered into vases while matter-of-factly conversing.  Later, autumn leaves fell on the characters from a cylinder in the ceiling.  All of this served to enhance the foggy, dream-like, stuck-ness of the characters’ lives but also, paradoxically, made the audience feel more alert and alive because the boundaries were so unexpected or non-existent.

In the third and fourth acts, even time lost its predictability as certain characters moved in slow motion while others continued at normal speed.  The portrayal of the fire that swept the community at the top of Act Three, for example, was wonderful:  the actors formed a slow-motion, even dance-like, bucket brigade in a circle around the stage that added another layer of meaning to the monologues being performed at regular speed on the stage itself. The director told me later that one of the actors, Kole Christian, had led the discovery of the slow-motion, circular bucket brigade during a small-group workshop activity in which the company was physically exploring the idea of moving while stuck.  It was very cool.

The lighting design throughout the show was admirable as well.  The technical director, Gordon Strain (who is also Director of Theatre at Franklin College), told me after the show that even though he is listed as the lighting designer in the program, it was really the sound/assistant lighting designer Kris Lewis who created the bulk of the lighting design and made it work so well.

Speaking of sound, while I loved that live violin playing was part of the production (and a little live guitar playing and a place where everyone joined hands and burst into folk song and dance!) there were also several pieces of recorded music that intrigued me.  Nick told me after “Three Sisters” that he had stage-managed last year’s Indy Fringe show by Motus Dance Theatre, which was called “Broken Fragile Mind.”  (I saw and loved that show but didn’t write about it because I saw it on my non-blogging day at the end of the Fringe Festival after already writing about several other Fringe shows.)  Nick knew right away that some of the music from that show would be right for “Three Sisters.”

Nick said there had been a mistake in the musicof “Three Sisters” on the night I was there, but I hadn’t noticed anything amiss.  He shared more information about the music in an email:

The music we use in the show is:

Band- Song Title

The Postal Service- Recycled Air  (top of the show- where the Ba-Ba-Ba melody come from) but what you actually heard was…

The National- Squalor Victoria (oops, live theatre at it finest) and I have asked around and nobody else noticed either

Eric Bachmann- The Mysterious Death of Robert Tower (top of Act II)

Eric Bachmann- A Diamond is the Devils Eye (Top of Act III- Bucket Brigade)

Phoenix- Love is Like a Sunset Part I (transition between Act III and IV)

Hans Zimmer- music from the Sherlock Holmes Soundtrack (end of the show)

Nick also told me that most translations of “Three Sisters” make the family into British aristocracy, but the Schmidt translation has more of an American sensibility and he therefore directed it to have more of an American pacing and sound.  Since I have not seen any of the other translations, I can not make comparisons, but I liked hearing the mix of everyone’s natural, Hoosier accents rather than possibly fake-sounding Russian or British accents. I don’t know enough about period costumes or this play to know how much Angie Malone’s costume designs reflected the American slant to this translation, but the women’s long dresses and the men’s military uniforms and other costumes added a rich, historical feeling to the production.

There are several other people listed as Production Staff in the program, too, too many to name here.  However, I do want to give a shout out to the three Props people – Melanie Overfield, Cora Philpot, and Kelsey Roberts –  for the wonderful old-fashioned box camera and baby carriage that they found or created.

College Theatre, But Community Theatre, Too

I thought that the audience at a college show would be mostly other college students, and there were, in fact, a lot of students there.  However, there were also a lot of older people there.  At first I thought they might all be related to people in the show.  Then I overheard three women talking to each other with pleasure about other shows that they had come on campus to see.  And on the way out of the theatre after the show, the male half of a couple of senior citizens who had been sitting in front of me caught my eye and said, “That sure was different, wasn’t it!”  He, too, was smiling with pleasure.  If I lived in Franklin, I bet I would make sure to see every show offered by the Franklin College Theatre, too.

I also thought the cast would be all the same age – i.e., all college students in their late teens or early 20s – no matter what the ages of the characters were supposed to be.  I was delighted to be proved wrong about this, too.  Yes, most of the cast members are students (and there is nothing wrong with that, even from an audience point of view, especially since, in this production, all of the students were committed to their roles) but one actor, Craig Parker, is a non-teaching employee of Franklin College who has a theatre background.  Another, Robin Roberts, is the Fine Arts Division Head and Fine Arts Department Chair.  Both men’s performances added another admirable layer of richness to the production.

I confess that I have a soft spot in my heart for Franklin College anyway because they hired me last year to share my Lincoln stories and because earlier this year, the instructors of a new storytelling class invited me to speak with their students one afternoon.  Those two Franklin College experiences were treats for me because of the people and because the campus itself is charming.  I was delighted to learn that one of the storytelling students, Chad Teague, was also in this play.

Box Office

“Three Sisters” ran for only one extended weekend, closing on March 14, 2010.  The Franklin College Theatre’s next production will be “Speaking in Tongues,” written by Andrew Bovell and directed by Fine Arts & Humanities Lecturer Carolyn Rodkey.  Reservations can be made online at franklincollege.edu/TheatreTickets, by email at tickets@franklincollege.edu, or by phone at 317-738-8029.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.

(“Chekov” photo, above, was taken by bebouchard and shared on the Creative Commons area of Flickr.com.  It is of the “Monument to Anton Chekov just off Tverskaya Ulitsa in Moscow.”)

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