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Three Sisters at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama

Director Pamela Berlin draws from the cast provide an experience of deeply felt humanity.

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Because I've left such a long paper trail on the subject, there's no point in trying to deny it — Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters is my least favorite play ever written. It concerns the eponymous troika of dames who, at the turn of the 20th century, are anxious to leave their small Russian town and move back to Moscow (which they'd left 11 years earlier). Events conspire to keep them from relocating, and by the end of the evening their lives have been ground down to near nothing. My reaction has always been, "Get on the damned train already and go to Moscow. Better yet, get under it."

So jump-cut to me driving home from the recent Carnegie Mellon School of Drama production of Three Sisters enchanted by what I'd just seen. What the hell happened?

Director Pamela Berlin brings a great deal of honesty and theatrical smarts to this version. Often, with a classic such as Three Sisters, everyone involved appears to be aware they are Doing An Important Work. But the non-ponderous, non-showy performances Berlin draws from the cast provide an experience of deeply felt humanity. Berlin is helped in no small part by Paul Schmidt's 1998 translation; sometimes foreign-language classics can sound like they were run through Google's translator, but Schmidt's script is lively and idiomatic, with none of the fustian flourishes some adapters favor. I especially enjoyed the humor Schmidt has threaded throughout; I've sat through Major Classics in which neither the audience nor the performers dared crack a smile for three hours ... and that was as enjoyable as it sounds.

Kelsey Carthew, Olivia Lemmon and Colleen Pulawski in Three Sisters
  • Photo courtesy of Louis Stein
  • From left: Kelsey Carthew, Olivia Lemmon and Colleen Pulawski in Three Sisters at CMU Drama

Sophie Schneider has designed the exquisitely beautiful period costumes. And I should mention Shengxin Jin's handsome set design, which is suggestive enough of the time (a society on the verge of collapse) without being too obvious ("Hey look! I'm a set designer!")

All that's left is to mention the luminous performances by a knock-out cast — especially Colleen Pulawski and David Patterson, as Masha and Vershinin; Olivia Lemmon and Austin Murray, as Irina and Kulygin; and Kelsey Carthew and Sawyer Pierce, as Olga and Chebutykin.

All around, an unbelievably engrossing evening. Whodathunk?

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