Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov, is about more than three sisters. There are also two lieutenants, a bunch of maids, a new mother, a teacher, a doctor, a compulsive gambler, a troupe of mummers, and a lovesick baron. Over the course of three breakneck hours, we watch the nonstop intrigues of their lives: an engagement, several births, a love affair, an attempted rape, two massive parties, possible arson, and (why not?) a duel. Of the 14 principal characters, a dozen get to monologue about their most heartfelt disappointments and desires. Three Sisters is an overlong Czarist soap opera; it's four hectic acts about an insipid leisure class and its petty little problems. In turn-of-the-century Russia, Three Sisters inaugurated "realism." Today, the play feels about as real as Laguna Beach.
Still, universities insist on producing Three Sisters, and Three Sisters we shall see. We will listen to these bourgeois whiners "philosophize" in their drawing rooms, saying things like "We suffer so much!" We will listen to their profound conclusion: Life sucks, it goes on for a very long time, and then you die ... We will feel bad for them, not only because they may never return to Moscow, but because drizzly Moscow is the best place they can imagine.
If you simply must see Chekhov, Carnegie Mellon's Three Sisters is your best bet: Dan Saner has created a lavish, mobile set, complete with towering fir trees and period hearths. Jennifer Baldauf's costumes shine with authenticity. And the student cast is absolutely perfect -- their words and movements are professionally precise. This staging does not behave like a student production; these undergraduates are talented beyond their years.
Michael Frayn's translation is happily coherent, every miserable sentiment expressed in marvelous English. And Vladimir Mirodan, the director and a purported Chekhov expert, is a master of blocking and action: Multiple scenes transpire simultaneously, with the timing of a musical and the breeziness of a movie. With so much material -- years of family unraveling, plus long reminiscences about the good old days -- the actors must speed through their lines, galloping across the stage, spewing their poetic ponderings like ticker-tape machines. But to move quickly and remain graceful is this production's great triumph.
Three Sisters continues through Oct. 13, Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. Tickets: 412-268-2407.