Review: A Few Bad Apples Can’t Sour Three Sisters, Chekhov’s Masterwork, Presented by Invictus Theatre Company

Melodrama gets a bum rap. It’s silly, the cynics say, unrealistic, it’s too much. But when melodrama is done well there’s nothing else like it. The genre appeals to the emotional scavenger, searching through art for new feelings like a hog in the woods searches for truffles. Anton Chekhov, the playwright and short story writer, was a realist in his time, though watching Invictus Theatre Company’s production of Three Sisters at Windy City Playhouse, I was struck by how its emotional veracity hit the same as my favorite melodramas.

Invictus’s founding artistic director Charles Askenaizer directs the show, providing the deliciously heightened emotions so many of us theatergoers crave. It’s not a perfect production—several of the performances drag it down—but it’s effective in all the ways it must. The play's translation is by Paul Schmidt, a Russian-language scholar who is also a veteran Chekhovian actor.

In the beginning we meet the three sisters—Ólga (Maria Stephens), eldest and the matriarch; Màsha (Katherine Schwartz), middle and dissatisfied with her marriage; Irína (Ellie Duffey), youngest and doe-eyed—as they prepare for Irína’s 20th birthday on the one-year anniversary of their father’s death.

: Katherine Schwartz (Másha), Ellie Duffey (Irína), Maria Stephens (Ólga). Photo by Aaron Reese Boseman Photography.

The sisters proudly hold onto their upper-middle-class lifestyle, though it’s a precarious position maintained by more and more labor as the show progresses. In their home they greet old friends, as well as a company of soldiers who recently came to their provincial town. Among them is Lieutenant Colonel Vershínin (Bryan Breau), the optimistic armchair philosopher Màsha finds irresistibly attractive.

Immediately I was impressed by the likeness among the sisters. Stephens, Schwartz and Duffey possess remarkably comparable faces. Looking at the cast photos it was almost uncanny marking the similarities in their facial shapes and features. Casting director Becca Holloway did a wonderful job creating a plausible family.

The introduction of these characters, however, could be smoother. First act character setups are difficult, especially in shows created before the term “exposition dump” became every writer’s greatest fear. The Sisters' plot isn’t complex but its characters are, and so an appropriate degree of slow-burn is to be expected. Unfortunately, the sisters, especially Stephens as Ólga and Duffey as Irína, I believe, attempt to compensate for the slowness with a lot of unnecessary and distracting business.

In theater the word “business” refers to non-scripted actions characters complete on stage. Actors enter a show knowing what they’ll say, it’s in the script, but the knick-knacks they play with, the glasses they move around, the books they sort through: most of that “business” comes out of rehearsals. Too little business and your stage is static. Too much business and you look like you don’t have faith in the material. Act 1 has too much business.

Throughout the act Ólga and Irína, excited about the birthday and their plans to move back to Moscow in the near future, do a lot of pillow fighting and hugging, strange sitting and speaking over each other. It’s a lot of business. Irína is especially exaggerated. Duffey takes a character sweet and self-assured on the page, and makes her louder, a little feral and ultimately less appealing than she ought to be.

Ólga and Irína seem to me like dancers waving their hands so you don’t notice they’re out of step. I could imagine the director and cast during rehearsals thinking of ways to spice up the exposition, generate something to watch. “What if I tried sitting on the couch, but upside down?”

It’s excessive and betrays the unusual hubris in thinking one could improve Chekhov by goofing off. Stephens plays Ólga as more her sister’s buddy than a surrogate mother, which makes the relationship confusing. One forgets at times that Ólga is supposed to be the oldest. Moreover, presenting the women as overly silly while the men remain philosophical and passionate highlights the sexism in the text, which may make current audiences uncomfortable. You should never change the text, obviously, but why lean into the bits one might be tempted to reevaluate?

Ellie Duffey (Irína Prózorov), Joseph Beal (Chebutýkin). Photo by Aaron Reese Boseman Photography.

The show becomes more palatable in Act 2 when the characters are too beaten by life to continue their roughhousing. The sisters' brother Andrey (Michael B. Woods) has married the deceitful and lower-class Natàsha (Cat Hermes) who threatens to ruin the entire household with her controlling habits. I suspect once the plot thickened, the cast and director felt less pressure to stir it up. We also see in this act the best performances of the night take shape and give us the melodramatic gut punch that brings people back to this play decade after decade.

Michael B. Woods as Andrey, the brilliant brother who never fulfills his potential, is something special to behold. As an actor, Woods has wide, haunting, beautiful, puffy eyes. He has a thousand-yard stare totally appropriate for his character. With Woods I saw the most variety of any performer on the stage. Constant changes in the tone of his voice, the speed of his delivery, volume, mood. All purposeful and creative but, unlike choices made by other actors, not in the least distracting.

In Act 3 when Andrey defends the character of his unfaithful wife to the sisters, he says, “Natàsha is a lovely person, honest and straightforward and well brought up. In my opinion.” The way Woods delivers “In my opinion,” so weakly and ashamedly, practically under his breath, as though embarrassed but too proud to admit it: that’s some real craft at work.

Cat Hermes (Natásha), Michael B. Woods (Andrey). Photo by Aaron Reese Boseman Photography.

The second greatest performance of the evening, and certainly the most bizarre, comes from Francis Brady as the teacher Kulýgin, Màsha’s well-meaning but boring husband. Brady gives the character this slow moseying cadence, lifting his voice up and down, sing-songy, as though he were always talking to toddlers. It is such a distinct and unexpected direction, excellent for a character who is kind but ultimately grating. The voice is so idiosyncratic in fact I wondered if it was Brady’s natural way of speaking. Whether this is a case of a smart performance or brilliant casting, or a little of both, it makes for a real treat.

Despite an uneven start and a few underperforming performances, Three Sisters delivers what audiences should expect from the classic drama. It creates a space where naked, desperate emotions wash over the audience in waves. It’s melodramatic to extreme. And for theatergoers, like myself, who more than anything want to feel something, there’s plenty to chew on for three hours.

The production team includes Kevin Rolfs as technical director and scenic designer. Costumes are by Jessie Gowens. Trey Brazeal is lighting designer and Petter Wahlbäck is responsible for sound design. Alisa Resnick is stage manager, 

Three Sisters by Invictus Theatre Company continues at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W Irving Park Rd, thru Sunday, July 14. Running time is three hours with a 15-minute intermission. Ticket prices range from $25 to $35.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Adam Kaz