Three Soldiers (For Sisters) presented by Red Theater Chicago at The Den Theatre. Written and directed by Aaron Sawyer. Runtime 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission.
In this modern adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters, Red Theater Chicago has found a way to bring the past 10 years of history into the ever poignant story of three sisters who just wish for happiness and a better life in Moscow (or in this case Omaha).
Adapting one of the greatest theatrical masterpieces ever written is no small task and writer & director Aaron Sawyer does so in keeping the entire structural plot of the original play while infusing the topics of post 9-11 patriotism, the influence the American occupation has on the natives during war and the repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. As a purist and lover of Chekov one may balk at the idea of a gender confused Tuzenbach, a hip hop loving Vershinin, a club hopping Irina or a terrorist that breaks the fourth wall but every character is layered, truthful and compelling. When acted well, Chekov’s works can be hilarious and in Sawyer’s script humor is in abundance. Furthermore, in this adaptation it is Irna’s (Irina’s) story more than ever, a fact I believe is often overshadowed by strong performances in other productions of the original play.
There is not one weak link in the cast. Sarah Liken (Irna) goes through a wonderful transformation from a girl on the brink of adulthood to a jaded, grieving woman. Liken is charming, and shares intense chemistry with both her love interests Cookie (Victoria Alvarez-Chacon) and Sully (Mickey O’Sullivan). I’d like to point out the costume design here by Erica L. Hohn aids Miss Liken in looking youthful, and the difference between the costumes in each act move with Irna’s story arch. A very strong design choice for a very representational, small production.
Mickey O’Sullivan as Sully gives one of the strongest performances. He walks a fine line between likeable awkward buffoon and the hopeless rich man who cannot buy happiness. Meredith Ernst’s Maria is bitter yet seductive and has arguably the most heartbreaking end to any character in this story. On the flip side, her husband Freddy (Christopher Paul Mueller) delivers several moments of comic relief but turns maniacal when the secrets throughout the play come to a head. Mueller handles the heartbreak well, but is less sympathetic to the audience than his cohorts.
Erin O’Connor is a likeable Natasha, which is ironic considering how insufferable Natasha’s actions are. As each act goes by O’Connor appears more statuesque and domineering (again, the costuming helps achieve this). Miss O’Connor is stunning, commanding and it’s no wonder that Andrew (the entertaining Evan Sawdey) is manipulated by and madly in love with her. Sawdey’s geeky Andrew is the definition of whipped and his struggle to find his control and his manhood is tragic.
Gage Wallace is given the most difficult task within the play. He is billed as The Misfit and aptly so. He plays a foreign house maid affectionately called Turd amongst his masters, a US General (with an unneeded story arch involving the rape of Sully) and a suicide bombing terrorist. Wallace is faced with the 20 percent of the script that I found unneeded. When breaking the fourth wall it pulled us out of the story. Sully (or as we know him in the original piece Solyony) is not the central focus of the play and I found the US General could have been cut. Nevertheless, Wallace is a force to be reckoned with. As a suicide bomber in the fourth act he is terrifying. Wallace humanizes what we fear in a post 9/11 world and reminds us that the people we are killing are still human beings. He should certainly be recognized for a thrilling performance with what is considerably the weakest material in the play. I found the writing of these 4th wall breaking vignettes to be the one issue I had leaving the theatre.
While the play sometimes lacks the poetry one associates with Chekov, the commitment and honesty of the actors make these soldiers (and sisters) identifiable and worth the time spent with them. Sawyer’s direction is strong as is a substantial part of his material. While the show has its odd moments, it does what new theatre should do, it makes us ask questions. As the terrorist in the piece indicates: after all this time nothing has changed; and only then do reflect on how far we’ve come but how much farther we have to go as people and as a nation. Now more than ever are the themes of Chekov’s play relevant and Three Soldiers (for Sisters) dares us to delve into them.
Three Soliders runs through March 30th. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 730pm and Sundays at 3pm. www.redtheater.org
Reviewed by Drew Shanahan