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SUDS creates Chekhov’s nihilistic optimism on stage

Shannen Potter reviews SUDS’ latest production, Three Sisters.

three sisters

During the closing moments of SUDS’ latest production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Chenier Moore as Chebutykin repeats, “it doesn’t matter,” in the wake of the mounting tragedy and interpersonal chaos of the play’s final act. Certainly, this seems to be a recurring theme throughout the play. Yes, our friends are gone; yes, we feel trapped by the banality of bourgeois existence; and yes, we will probably never make it to Moscow. But it doesn’t matter. And not in a fun, “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter!” from Whose Line Is It Anyway kind of way. It’s more, “oh god the existential dread is ever present and crushing”. That’s Chekhov for you.

In his director’s notes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari claims that Chekhov was, “one of theatre’s greatest optimists,” and certainly there are hints of this in this production. Zach Beavon-Collin is highly convincing and engaging as Vershinin, a lieutenant-colonel with a suicidal wife who remains optimistic, philosophic and romantic throughout Three Sisters. His major sense of hope, however, comes from his conviction that humanity is headed for a much brighter future and the SUDS’ production makes clear that that future is now. Through the use of modern costumes and a set sparsely decorated with shabby furniture, Lusty-Cavallari along with set designers Chris Howell and Moore highlights the irony of Vershinin’s words. Just as Chekhov implies the titular three sisters will never achieve their dreams of going to Moscow, so too does Lusty-Cavallari’s production exclude the possibility of Vershinin’s vision of the future.

The use of The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ works well as the opening and closing to the play to reinforce this. The upbeat tune takes on an almost mocking quality as it frames the play’s final tableaux; after the events of Three Sisters the song’s sense of optimism rings false. Lighting also plays a significant role in developing the relationship between these forces. Chrysanti Chandra and Courtney Thompson professionally create feelings of nihilism, claustrophobia and dread to accompany each scene’s content, making creative use of onstage lamps and light sources. The evocation of a fire in the second half of the play, however, is a warm, shifting mixture of reds and oranges, which capture a sense of mesmeric beauty. While the director’s note accompanying the play may encourage audiences to focus on the sense of despondency present throughout the production, moments such as this are glimpses into Chekhov’s “optimism.”

Despite the sophisticated evocation of these complex themes, SUDS’ production of Three Sisters has its low points. While Lusty-Cavallari and his cast make the best of the material, Checkov’s ultimately disheartening play about a group of people unable to galvanise change in their lives sometimes lacks momentum. The average audience member can probably only watch the Russian bourgeoisie lament the necessity of working in a nice civil service job so many times, and the self destructive or inert trajectories the characters continue to invest in become frustrating. While Lusty-Cavallari says, “we have embraced the anachronism,” asking audiences to sympathise with these struggles becomes a difficult task.

However, just as the director’s note reads, “the ‘trivia’ that makes up this small drama is indeed moving no matter how much we are told it is all banal idleness,” the cast members are able to humanise their characters’ middle class ennui. In the twenty-first century I don’t know many teachers who, like Olga, can afford to keep a full time servant. But when Henriette Tkalec as Irina’s eyes brim with tears as she contemplates a bleak future of work and marriage I was instantly connected to the character and her situation. Similarly Georgia Coverdale as the long suffering but generous eldest sister Olga creates both a sympathetic and realistic character, and Maree Raad develops a convincing portrait of Masha as a sardonic woman coming to terms with her ill chosen husband. Adam Waldman provides comic relief with a touch of pathos as Masha’s husband Kulygin, and his enthusiasm and on point 90s dad wardrobe will certainly make him an audience favourite. The rest of the cast handle their roles confidently and competently, while Beavon-Collin’s mature rendering of Vershinin is a standout as one of the most nuanced performances in a great cast.

Ultimately, SUDS’ iteration of Three Sisters is a challenging play, which asks audiences to engage with Chekhov at his most nihilistic, while also entertaining a sense of hope or optimism for a bright future that seems to have eluded us. The skilful handling of this difficult material by Lusty-Cavallari, Assistant Director Nina Newcombe and their wonderful cast and crew makes Three Sisters and entertaining and worthwhile production which I would advise any reader to make time to see.

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