Yesterday, I saw No Sisters at Studio Theatre, written and directed by Aaron Posner. First thing you need to know is that it is performed in rep (repertory) with Three Sisters, meaning that the two shows are performed in the same time period with the same cast. Here’s the catch: not only is the cast the same, but the characters from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters are the same characters in this show and while those characters are offstage for Three Sisters, they are onstage for No Sisters. Honestly, it was a feat – truly masterful playwriting/stage managing in terms of timing the character’s entrances and exits with the other show. Before I get to that though, I want to talk about the technical aspects.
According to the program, the setting is a “weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room,” and it definitely was. It was also glorious. The set designer, Daniel Conway, was working overtime on this one. From what I can tell, there’s no props designer, so I assume Conway did everything. Let me paint a picture, starting with the center. There were three portraits of the the three sisters above the center entrance/exit. They were wrapped in green Christmas tree lights; other Christmas tree lights laced themselves through the top of the set, with spaces for globes, toys, and other items one might find in a green room or props room. There were multiple sittables (chairs, couches, you get it) of various sizes. There were flower mugs and Star Trek mugs and a picture of a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln on the wall. There were chandeliers of every kind – broken, ornate, everything, and scattered about the audience as well. The show relied on some audience participation, so we needed to be illuminated at times. There were columns of closed-circuit TVs projecting real-time video from the downstairs production of Three Sisters. The interface between No Sisters and Three Sisters was truly magnificent. The set was impressive and intricate; the attention to detail was divine.
The lighting was a time a little harsh, but I appreciated that the lighting designer, Jesse Belsky, made the lighting significant. It would have been easy to have only a few lighting cues – we’re in a green room for heaven’s sake, but it was nice to have variety.
No Sisters really brought Chekhov into the 21st century. The play alluded to the toils of today and equated them back to the toils of turn of the century Russia (the 19th to the 20th). We’re talking about economic disparity, refugee issues, wars, heartache. The characters in Chekhov’s play are exhausted from living life in 1901 Russia, and to be honest, I’m tired of living life in Trump’s America. No Sisters drew that out of the characters.
A lot of the play was spent with characters giving monologues to the audience and interacting with them, but I actually preferred when there were two or more characters on stage. The monologues were a bit dry and self-indulgent at times, but then again, that’s kind of Chekhov. It seemed like more of a therapy session for these characters – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it informed my understanding of Three Sisters immensely, to see the characters make discoveries and tease out the worst and best parts of themselves.
It reminded me of an acting exercise we did in college, but also before that. You take a character, you sit in front of the class, and the class interviews the characters. So you make up a backstory, you fill in gaps. You make the character.
The college version of this, which incidentally I did with Three Sisters, is where you go through the play meticulously; you find everything that is said about your character; you find everything that you say about yourself. And from there, you craft your character based on every possible bit of information.
Honestly, it’s a best practice for discovering your character. Regardless, it seemed like the playwright did this ad nauseam. For obvious reasons, this play had to fit within the time constraints of Three Sisters, happening downstairs. Because of this, the play dragged on at times, as I mentioned, usually during a monologue. However, a couple of characters engaged me constantly: William Vaughan as Fedotik was adorable, naive, and a powerhouse – something he is not given in Three Sisters. Most of the characters who were not given much in Three Sisters, were given infinitely more in this play. The relationship between Solyony (Biko Eisen-Martin) and Tuzenbach (Ro Boddie) was sweetened before it soured by giving their backstory and seeing their love and hate for each other. Kimberly Gilbert as Natasha and Ryan Rilette as Andrey sparkled as the extremely dysfunctional wife and husband. Natasha’s boundless energy and nervous wreckage shot out of her like a geyser, and Andrey’s descent into the discovery that he’s just as bad if not worse than his wife was revelatory for the audience as well.
The whole play was revelatory. That’s what therapy does, it reveals and seeks to explain the worst parts of ourselves.
The overall goal of both plays was the same at the end of the day – they both attempted to make sense of a world that is so beyond anyone’s understanding. And I think both plays succeed in a way because they realize at the end that they can’t give THE answer, they can only given AN answer. One answer that rings true for them individually. And collectively, it can help inform our attempt to give THE answer or AN answer or whatever.
I enjoyed the play, I enjoyed learning about these characters from new angles. I enjoyed seeing certain actions – the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbach – that we don’t see on stage in Three Sisters. I thought it was a beautiful companion piece, but as Anfisa warned us near the beginning, “not a lot happens,” especially during the monologues. I give this play a 7/10.