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Time wears down all in Chekhov's despondent Sisters

The Three Sisters

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble.

Directed by Kermit Dunkelberg.

Written by Anton Chekhov.

La Sala de Puerto Rico.

March 1719 and 2426, 8 p.m.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

The impinging sense of gloom that permeates Anton Chekhov's play The Three Sisters is inherent in the material, not just in the dim stage lighting. Representative of its period (early 1900s) and theatrical style (naturalism), the production is filled with questioning glances and pregnant pauses, and the dialogue doesn't crackle with wit or enthusiasm. More often, this story of three fatherless sisters and their weak-willed brother translates to a cry of desperation than an affirmation of hope in the future, the nominal upshot of events in the play.

The play begins with sisters Olga (Anne Dudfield '95), Masha (Monica Gomi), and Irina (Portia Vescio '96), preoccupied with their lives in the present. Olga, the eldest, remarks to Irina how young and beautiful she is, while she sees her own life teaching high school students being robbed of its youth and vitality. Masha initially seems despondent, then awakens from a self-imposed melancholia when guests arrive. They are Russian military officers, friends of the family through a deceased general and father, one year past.

One officer, Baron Tuzenbach (Robert Pensalfini G), reflects on the future in a humorous fashion, alluding to an ominous cloud of "laziness, snobbery, and prejudice against work" that threatens society's foundations. Another officer, Vershmin (Eugene Chiang '95) is more cautious and contemplative of the future of mankind: Several times in the play he philosophizes about an evolution of the human spirit to the point, say in two or three centuries, where man will be set free from the chains of suffering and will truly know what it means to be happy.

The other sibling in the family, Andrei (Fernando Paiz '98) is somewhat of a black sheep and he knows it. Even with his college education, he can't seem to escape mediocrity, either in professional or romantic life: His soon-to-be wife Natasha (Elizabeth Stoehr '96) is a selfish and domineering woman. The crises that arise when she moves under the family roof is only one sign of the household coming apart at the seams.

The Baron is wooing Irina, to no avail, with the jealous, brash officer Solyony (Steven Yang '98) waiting in the wings; Vershmin is wooing Masha, a married woman; and Olga must offer consolation to the members of her family while at the same time maintaining her own mental health. Add one aging neurotic doctor (Marcus Sarofim '96) to the mix, and the characters will reach a collective boiling point.

The problem is that no one is willing to commit their feelings strongly enough to each other, and time erodes their passions when they are in such close contact with one another. Each act signals the passage of time, at first undetectable, then painfully realized. Day becomes night; the light of hope and the promise of a new beginning ebbs away and reappears only for the final act, just in time for the characters to come to their senses about their relationships and take measures to remedy them with calculating precision, unable to recover emotions that have long since been lost.

The acting is adequate. Most noteworthy are Pensalfini and Chiang as the soldiers who seek the love of two of the sisters: Pensalfini's droll humor and Chiang's grave manner seem to balance each other out. Also, Sean Ningen '95 as Kulygin, Masha's schoolteacher husband, appropriates just the right amount of pomposity to cloud his emotional sight of his dissatisfied, strung-out wife. The actresses playing the three sisters are best in their scenes with one another, when they cohere as a unit. No major fault can be found with the remainder of the cast, except to say that the projection of emotion seems a bit rote and overly-mannered.

The play itself is an effective exercise in naturalistic drama. Without flowery or propulsive dialogue (as in, say, a Shakespeare piece), the material is dry and often self-referential, which can get a little tiring. But the story itself is well-structured and interesting.

When the sisters look for some sign of renewal outside, in the light, all they find is the same old town, layered with the same faces and opportunities. The constant ideal of Moscow as a city to live in once again is never achieved - one gets the feeling that none of the characters will be truly happy in their lifetimes. Juxtaposed with a joyful fanfare of a band playing for departing soldiers, Olga remarks to her sisters that we don't really have a choice in life but to keep on living, if not for us then for future generations.

In the end, it's the sisters who come out ahead of their male counterparts: less prone to self-pity and more open to one's fate as a prisoner on earth.