Thursday, May 03, 2012

Review - The Three Sisters - Nightpath Theatre Company - 5 stars

Chekhov wrote comedies.  Good companies like Nightpath Theatre remember this.  The bad ones treat them the same way a fellow student at my college once approached a scene in acting class.  When asked what his character was doing he replied, "I'm just sitting here, waiting to die."  Uh… OK.  Thankfully Nightpath takes the completely opposite approach in their current production of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters.  Are the sisters' lives all sunshine and roses?  No, but there's still a lot of laughter to be had from these ladies and the cast of quirky characters which surrounds them.

"Something vast is coming toward us."

I was big fan of Nightpath's production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure because it was so off-the-chart weird in concept that it somehow worked perfectly.  With The Three Sisters, director Maggie Scanlan takes a seemingly more conventional approach, but the production is anything but ordinary.  The Three Sisters uses all corners of the Walker Community United Methodist Church in a production that is staged just as much (if not more) for the God's eye view of the folks who sit in the balcony as those who watch from the main floor literally in the middle of the many characters' comings and goings.  It's simple, but gorgeous.  (Katie Phillips' work on set and props here deserves a lot of praise, as does Alice Fredrickson's great costume design.)

"I'll walk you home every night for ten years, twenty years, until you chase me away."

The three sisters of the title are Olga, Masha and Irina.  Olga (Mykel Pennington) gets ever more entangled at her job at the school, being promoted almost in spite of herself.  She's so good at her job that it takes over her life and becomes a career.  Masha (Sheila Regan) embarks on a giddy affair with Vershinin (Edward Linder), the married lieutenant colonel of the regiment of soldiers that has set up camp in their provincial Russian town.  Piling one infidelity on another, Masha is also married, to the good-natured (and not as clueless as he seems) Kulygin (Joey Metzger), a teacher who might be a better match for Olga.  Irina (Kara Davidson), the youngest sister, is trying to find her purpose in life, while at the same time juggling a pair of competing suitors, also soldiers at the local encampment - the intense and menacing Solyony (Ben Yela) and the sweet and goofy Baron Tuzenbach (Foster Johns), a guy so perfect for Irina that you just want to shake her and tell her to wake up. 

"Masha wishes everything was in a novel.  It's simple.  It all works out.  But when you're in love yourself, you realize that no one knows anything."

Olga, Masha and Irina also have a brother Andrei (Tyler Stamm) whose gambling problem and bad taste in women cause the family no end of trouble.  Andrei marries Natalya (Andie Olthoff), a woman whose grating voice is only part of what makes her the sister-in-law from hell.  She may act like uncultured trash, but Natalya has passive aggressive (emphasis on the aggressive) down to an art form.  Before you know it, she's taken over the house as a way of settling some of Andrei's gambling debts and is rearranging the sleeping arrangements of the sisters in order to make room for her growing litter of children (not all of whom may have been fathered by Andrei).  Natalya even wants to kick some of the loyal family servants to the curb (Tyler D. Martin and Colleen Barrett).

"She's honest and honorable, sometimes even a good person."

Rounding out the players are Chebutykin (Robert Larsen), the local doctor who has a habit of falling on and off the wagon where the bottle is concerned.  He's also a houseguest and close family friend who still carries a torch for the sisters' long dead mother.  Plus, we have a couple of young lieutenants, Fedotik (Daniel Duren) and Rode (Seth Johnson), who do their best to provide entertainment of the musical and jokester variety.

"I've stayed behind like some old migrant bird that can't fly anymore."

Director Scanlan and her cast seem to know all these characters down to their bones.  There's always an unspoken conversation just below the one that's spoken, and you get the feeling that these people lived full lives before we encountered them, and will do long after we leave the theater.  When they step offstage, there's a whole world of things happening which we don't get to see which informs who they are when they reappear.  Some of them cast a long shadow over the proceedings even when they're not present.  For instance, the heinousness of Natalya's "sister-in-law who ate the family home" was so vivid in the first half of the second act, that I felt her presence throughout the second half, even though she was little more than an occasional offstage voice (kudos to Andie Olthoff for that bit of theater magic).

"If only we knew."

For the first time, I also feel like I not only understood the sisters, but all the men in their lives as well.  The emphasis remains, as it should, on the women.  But each of the supporting male roles were also so full and rich that it often felt like I was curled up with a good novel.  This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment but I know some of these actors, have even seen them in other productions, and was not prepared for how good they were in this production.  That's a credit both to all of them, and the director who pushed them to a new level this time around.

"Soon the snow will come and cover everything."

There are some moments that are so lovely and human, they draw you in and have you on the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next.  When Foster Johns as the Baron, not an overly proud man to begin with, drops all remaining pretense of pride and openly asks for even the tiniest glimmer of hope that one day Irina might love him back, we're holding our breath right along with him for her response.  A wonderful extended moment of shared, exhausted laughter between the three sisters in the second act really has us believing in that moment that Pennington, Regan and Davidson are family - and that anything is possible.

"I've aged.  It's from getting angry at the high school girls."

And yes, there is the repeated refrain of the desire to go to Moscow (which had a friend of mine declare that sometimes she just wants to tell them to "shut up and get on the train").  But I realized this time, because of this production, that Moscow isn't just a name or a destination.  Of course I knew that before, but this time I felt it, because these characters seemed so much more real to me.  Moscow for some is about wanting to return to the safety of the past.  For some it's about the hope and possibility of a future not yet seen.  For some, it's just an "anywhere but here" mentality, a mentality that might cause them to miss the good things in their current life they take for granted.

"You mustn't let me go."

This may be a script where characters use variations on the word "boring" far too many times for the play's own good, but unlike some lesser Chekhov productions I've seen in the past, Nightpath Theatre's production of the The Three Sisters doesn't have a slow or boring moment anywhere in sight.  It's Chekhov done right, with a laughing eye on the absurdity of life.

Very Highly Recommended

The Three Sisters runs through Saturday, May 12th, 2012.  See for reservations and more information.

[Photo by Bill Cameron - The Three Sisters - Irina (Kara Davidson), Masha (Sheila Regan) and Olga (Mykel Pennington)]

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Gay Marriage Play Update - Sides for Auditions

In advance of auditions next week, the director has chosen sides from the script as the scenes we will use for the readings.  The theater asked me to post the sides online, and thanks to my hand website as a web repository of bits and pieces of my work, most of them were already live in one form or other.  I've posted two new additions which were selected, so here are some handy links.

The monologues being used can be found here.

A monologue for the Duchess, a minister without a church trying to get in the frame of mind to perform the wedding ceremony

"I don’t blame my congregation. It’s not easy to understand why I did what I did. What I had to do."

A monologue for Duke, a policeman trying to make sense of his assignment today, and life as a widower

"We didn’t use to have to protect churches. Not from the faithful, not from anyone."

A monologue for Jacob, younger brother of gay groom Patrick rallying the protesters outside the church

"The building in front of us is not a church. Not today. God is not dwelling in that building today. God is out here. With us."

The scenes being used can be found here.

A scene for the two couples as they head off to prepare for the wedding

“There’s not an ounce of romance in any one of you, is there?”

A scene for the brother-sister team of Ephram and Eleanor getting all dressed up

“It’s just -- the way things are going, I keep waiting for the midgets or a dancing bear to show up.”

A scene for wedding couple Eleanor and Roland in the aftermath of a church window being smashed with a rock, and Roland learning Eleanor has a non-traditional wedding dress (discussed in the previous scene with brother Ephram)

" -- just you, walking down the center aisle of a church, toward me -- looking like you were getting married, to me. Does that make any sense at all?"

A scene for wedding couple Ephram and Patrick in the aftermath of the rock, charting the course from their first date to a wedding with protesters outside the church

"Something blue."

A scene for Duke gathering evidence, with the couples and the Duchess complicating matters

"You probably have my [finger]prints on file."

A scene for Duke and the Duchess, after he finds out she started her life as a man

"When did the world become so complicated?"

A scene for the couples and Duke to confront Jacob, after he throws another rock that injures Ephram

"Honey, I think I’ve finished clotting, if you’d like a prop."

But Not for Love is a tale of two weddings – the double wedding of a straight couple and a gay couple.  Siblings Ephram and Eleanor are marrying their partners (Patrick and Roland, respectively), in a joint ceremony at the same church the siblings attended since childhood.  But despite the two unions about to take place, the members of the wedding parties are divided over the individual expectations each has for their particular ceremony, and outside the church, animosity and the threat of violence simmer among a crowd of protesters and almost force both marriages to be called off.  Supporting roles include a lovelorn lady minister (the Duchess) with a secret from her past; a conflicted policeman (Duke) charged to keep the peace during the ceremony; and a protesting family member (Jacob) leading the angry mob of religious objectors outside the church.  But Not for Love is an honest, engaging comedy-drama illuminating today’s GLBT issues and the future of human equality.

Cast of Characters

JACOB – male, 20s, college student, Patrick’s younger brother

PATRICK – gay man, 30s, about to be married to Ephram

ELEANOR – female, Ephram’s sister, 30s, about to be married to Roland

EPHRAM – gay man, 30s, about to be married to Patrick

ROLAND – male, 30s, about to be married to Eleanor

DUCHESS – female, late 40s/early 50s, retired minister, formerly a man named Forest

DUKE – male, late 40s/early 50s, a policeman

(photo of Nick Sousa as Jacob in the 2011 Renegade Theater Company production in Los Angeles)

Interregnum 2011-1012 - Blog of the Time Between - But Not for Love

Since the November 2012 election has a proposed amendment on the ballot for the Minnesota state constitution to define marriage as being only between one man and one woman, local theater companies The Flower Shop Project and Workhouse Theatre are co-producing my play about gay marriage, "But Not For Love," this October.  Hopefully it'll help rally the troops and get them out to vote, and give them a few laughs and a much needed happy ending in the home stretch.  With luck, maybe same-sex marriage will only be illegal once, rather than twice over.  Every little victory helps...

5/1/12 - Gay Marriage Play Update - Sides for Next Week's Auditions
Twin Cities Daily Planet version

4/19/12 - Gay Marriage Play Update - Auditions on May 7th and 8th
Twin Cities Daily Planet version

3/3/12 - Anybody Want To Help Put On A Play?
Twin Cities Daily Planet version