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Review: ‘Three Sisters’ presented by Utopia Theatre Project (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger

From L to R: Anne Yumi Kobori as Masha, Marcia Aguilar as Olga, and Ella Ruth Francis as Irina in “Three Sisters.” Photo Credit: Angie Higgins.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Actors never tire of playing Chekhov. The good doctor’s characters feel so deeply and passionately and have such vital inner lives that they cannot fail to sweep away the actor and the audience if the company has sufficient talent and training to understand what they are about.

Clearly, the artists associated with the Utopia Theatre Project are more than sufficiently equipped to take on the master, and this production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” casts the kind of gentle bittersweet glow over the hearts of all participants for which Chekhov is famous.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the three orphaned and charming Pozorova sisters live on a country estate with their brother, leading simple lives and longing to return to their beloved Moscow as they find country life somewhat stifling, although they are pleased to keep their home open as a salon for the many soldiers stationed in their town who view the Pozorova home as an oasis of good taste and culture. In spite of the simplicity of their circumstances, Chekhov’s writing reveals the great depths of passionate feeling that lies beneath the placid surface of their daily lives, symbolized by their shared dream of Moscow. As the play unfolds slowly over a three year period, it becomes gradually all-too-obvious that their dreams will remain unrealized, and they will be forced to compromise with the stifling limitations imposed upon them, made all the more certain by their brothers’ squandering of the family fortune on gambling debts.

Sad as these circumstances are, they nevertheless persevere and live as well as they can, beautiful flowers blossoming amidst a field of weeds.

From such simplicity, carefully observed, Chekhov uncovers profound emotional depths, provided the actors have the instruments with which to play his music.

Utopia Theatre Project does a fine, straightforward job with this material. In spite of some original variations in staging (notably, on several occasions, the actors are so moved beyond words that some of the scenes are played as semi-danced sequences), this is not experimental Chekhov by any means, and that is all for the good. Chekhov usually works best taken on his own terms. The most unusual aspect of this production is the setting. The Bindery is not a theatre at all, but a cozy bookstore, furnished very much like a living room, with a bar in the corner. It works well as the Pozorova salon, with the audience seated amongst the actors as if we, too, were guests in the sisters’ lovely parlor.

As the three sisters, Marcia Aguilar (Olga), Anne Yumi Kobori (Masha), and Ella Ruth Francis (Irina) offer lovely, classically styled performances played with authenticity and deep feeling. The addition of choreography by Anne Kobori and Ella Ruth Francis never distracts but enriches. As their sister-in-law, the usurping Natasha, LeighAnn Cannon acquits herself well.

The various male characters who circle about the sisters are well-played by the excellent company, with a particularly standout performance by Gabriel Ross as Masha’s schoolmaster husband, who maintains his dignity with humor and kindness in the face of multiple disappointments and betrayals. Ross is an actor whose talent and ability seem to deepen with every role, and this is one of his most accomplished.

At the performance I attended, the Bindery’s events manager, non-actor Evan Karp, was effective in the role of a ubiquitous household servant, stagehand, and bartender, interacting with actors and audience with impressively natural nonchalance.

Lovers of Chekhov will be awfully glad to see this production. It’s a goodie.

“Three Sisters” continues at The Bindery through March 8. For further information, click here.


Rating: ***1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)


“Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov. Produced by Utopia Theatre Project. Director: Angie Higgins. Script Adaptation: Ella Ruth Francis. Choreography: Ella Ruth Francis, Anne Yumi Kobori. Bindery Events Manager: Evan Karp.

Cast:

Irina: Ella Ruth Francis. Masha: Anne Yumi Kobori. Olga: Marcia Aguilar. Andrey: Eduardo Esqueda. Natasha: LeighAnn Cannon. Kulygin: Gabriel Ross. Vershinin: Bezachin Jifar. Tuzenbach: Kyle Dayrit. Solyony: Bobby Kiner. Chebutykin: Ron Talbot. Fedotik: Jacob Henrie-Naffaa. Anfisa: Marsha van Broek.