21st-Century Chekhov

Anton Chekhov writes with such urgent simplicity that his plays have proved to be timeless. Their themes are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago, and his characters speak a truth that is no less pertinent now. It is therefore no surprise that attempts to update and modernize his writings are frequent. The results vary, however, too often sacrificing character and story for mediocre reinvention. Such is not the case with Daniel Reitz's new play, Three Sisters, a fresh look at an established classic that is anything but mediocre. Inspired by the great original, Reitz has written an intriguing and witty update that effortlessly brings Olga, Masha, Irina, and Chekhov himself firmly into the 21st century.

No longer left to toil in the outer provinces of Russia and long for their beloved Moscow, the sisters have been exiled to the outer boroughs of Manhattan, where they long for their beloved Upper West Side duplex. Olga, Masha, and Irina have gathered to celebrate Irina's birthday in an East Village bar, where they drink wine and commiserate about their lives.

Olga teaches Italian and lives quietly, but she is so afraid of life she can't even place a personal ad online. Masha lives with a man she doesn't love but won't leave because they have a great apartment in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood. She's also having an affair with a married man from her yoga class. Irina, an "actress" working three jobs to make ends meet, is slowly becoming a stranger in her own life. Like their turn-of-the-century counterparts, the sisters are unhappy yet helpless to do anything about it.

Reitz cleverly and seamlessly weaves Chekhov's story into his modern tale. The sisters bond over the loss of their Upper West Side home to their brother's horrible wife Natasha, much the same way they do when Natasha takes over their Russian home in the original. Allusions are made to Olga's bouts with melancholia. Irina is lost, swallowed up by work but never fulfilled. Masha stays with a man she doesn't love (Kulygin) yet longs for a mysterious stranger (Vershinnin). The sisters talk of taking a trip, of moving back to Manhattan, of reclaiming their beloved home. But they just talk; nothing tangible will come of their plans.

Daniel Talbott's efficient direction keeps the play focused. He hits every beat, finding the quiet in humor and the truth in adversity. He wisely incorporates the audience, casting them as patrons in the bar. The play unfolds around the audience members as they eavesdrop on the sisters' celebration.

The show benefits greatly from the strong portrayals by its leading ladies. As Olga, Masha, and Irina, Addie Johnson, Samantha Soule, and Julie Kline are wonderful. Each actress perfectly captures her character's center, delivering a fully realized and rich performance that is fascinating, intelligent, and funny.

Johnson makes Olga a woman surprised by the sound of her own voice. Longing to break free from her predictable life but afraid to take action, Olga is the most interesting of the sisters under Johnson's skillful guidance. The actress leaves you with the impression that she has only just begun to tell Olga's story.

Samantha Soule's Masha is a manic whirlwind, a mass of contradictions ready to either explode or collapse. With her rich voice, Soule commands attention, cracking her tough exterior to subtly reveal the fragile little girl beneath. Julie Kline plays Irina as a witness to her life, allowing the action to happen around her. Kline has a wonderful, fresh energy that serves the naïve Irina well.

In the mysterious role of Nicco, Denis Butkus delivers a charming performance as the sisters' ideal, but unattainable, man. For Olga he is Kulygin, the true intellectual who will love her for her mind. For Masha he is Vershinnin, the mysterious visitor who will take her away from her unhappy life. For Irina he is Tuzenbach, the great hope who will take care of her.

Ultimately, these subtle allusions to the original play are what makes Reitz's piece so captivating. He incorporates Chekhov's classic story and his most recognizable heroines effortlessly, leaving the highlighting and exclamation points to lesser writers. Reitz embraces Chekhov's Three Sisters while simultaneously making it his own. And Olga, Masha, and Irina are all the better for it.

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