In a time where women are fighting for equal rights and representation, three local female directors are diving back into the classical canon to stage different adaptations and versions of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, first performed in 1901.
Meg Trelease of Curio Theatre Company, Brenna Geffers of EgoPo Classic Theater and Harriet Power of Hedgerow Theatre Company are in the midst of preparing vastly different productions of the three highborn Russian sisters who console themselves after the loss of their father with entertainments of the nearby artillery and its men. On the precipice of the Russian Revolution and the fall of the czarist empire in 1917, Three Sisters has been long praised for its ability to impart the civil unrest of the times through the lens of a family.
“What a fantastic experience for people to be able to look at something from three different perspectives and the pieces themselves are so different not only in content, but also in style,” said Geffers of EgoPo. “What a rare opportunity to kind of look at this and sort of really see how far you can expand these themes.”
Going back into pre-Lenin, 1900’s Russia to reconstruct a more complete women’s narrative is Curio Theatre Company with the North American premier of UK artists RashDash’s cabaret entitled Three Sisters by RashDash After Chekhov. A punky and progressive look at Three Sisters, the madcap, musical cabaret revolves solely around the women characters and incorporates original songs as a way to amplify the repressed female voice.
“It uses Three Sisters as a theoretical framework to jump off in to a much larger, genre bending exploration of what it means, in the larger sense, to be a woman in an art form that predominantly leans towards the voice of a lot of dead white men,” said Trelease. “It begs the question, does the female voice fit into the classical canon? Can we as feminists continue to engage in the classical canon which we love?”
Trelease explained that for all the literary and emotional triumphs of Three Sisters, ultimately the character arcs of the three sisters — Masha, Olga and Irina — are completely dependent on men. It is a trope Trelease not only finds in many of the masterpieces of theater, but it is also a marginalization that she sees women actively fighting to change in today’s age.
“Something that really resonates with me about this piece is it feels very much like the last year and a half in the feminist movement with MeToo and TimesUp,” said Trelease. “We haven’t quite found the answers yet but the work of finding them is so valid and so worthy.”
Geffers of EgoPo Classic also found resonance in Three Sisters to today’s climate, but less from the women’s perspective and more from the theme of privilege. As part of EgoPo Classic’s South African Festival, Geffers is directing Reza de Wet’s darkly comedic Three Sisters Two (1997), which envisions the characters from Three Sisters 20 years later.
“[de Wet] wrote it from the perspective of a privileged Afrikaner who was at the threshold of a society that was on socioeconomic change. She felt that Chekhov’s characters also reflected a similar position where the characters were on the brink of a changing society that was going to eventually leave them behind,” said Geffers. “With our piece it’s almost like a three layered juxtaposition of a United States audience watching themselves reflected in the 1990s South African experience which is reflective of the 1920s Russian experience.”
Challenging the presubscribed roles of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and the notion of privilege, Geffers casted the eight actors into roles that defy their gender and age types. By usurping expectations, Geffers hopes that audiences can re-examine the societal constraints that pigeonholed the characters.
Keeping more in line with Chekhov’s original intent with Three Sisters is Hedgerow Theatre Company’s production. Power has directed Three Sisters twice before, and while she will be using Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 translation for the first time, the director does not find the classical approach to be at all antiquated.
“I think why we call certain plays classics is that they feel so personal and pertinent to today. It’s not like we’re seeing a museum piece. We’re seeing a mirror of our lives right now,” said Power. “Although, yes, we’re doing Three Sisters more as Chekhov wrote it than these other very intriguing and exciting sounding departures, I think we will have succeeded if there is no sense of museum or old fashion. Even though we’re honoring the period, we are seeing ourselves right now.”
A daughter to a Russian immigrant herself, Power said she found a lot of her personal life reflected in the play. Stemming from her own experiences, Powers noted that she wants to capture the play’s humor so often forgotten in revivals and the character’s rapidly changing mood swings “from absolute aggravation to utter joy on a dime.”
“I grew up in that kind of a home. For better or worse I seem to conduct myself that way,” explained Powers. “So I think helping actors feel comfortable expressing those rapid emotional changes, that’s a huge part of my approach.”
Whether an audience member has Russian ties or not, Power argued that all can find a sense of familiarity with the play, particularly in regard to its precarious political state.
“Russia was clearly on the edge of change and people could see it coming. A huge change coming. I think it’s one of our uncanny contemporary and maybe unfortunate access lines,” said Power. “I’m sad to say there is the parallel that didn’t exist the last two times I did the play.”
THREE CHANCES TO SEE THREE SISTERS
Later this month, three local directors want you to check out their twist on a Chekhov classic. And they’ve offered three theaters based on your location, preference and taste.
EgoPo Classic Theater | Jan. 30-Feb. 17. $12-$35. $2 for Access card holders. Latvian Society Theater, 531 N. 7th St.egopo.org/3s2
Curio Theatre Company | Feb. 6-March 2. $15-$30. 4740 Baltimore Ave. curiotheatre.org/three-sisters-by-rashdash-after-chekhov.html
Hedgerow Theatre Company | Feb. 6-March 3. $20-37. 64 Rose Valley Rd, Media. hedgerowtheatre.org/performance/mainstageseason/three-sisters/