Chekhov’s darkly comic play examines Russia’s well-educated, pre-revolution, fin-de-siècle idle class as they search for ever-elusive happiness—in philosophy, in drink, in love and infidelity, but mostly in the hopes of ditching the small town in which the title characters are stuck for the big city. “There’s nothing better in the world than Moscow!” one sister cries near the play’s end—not that she’ll ever get to confirm it. Three Sisters is like It’s a Wonderful Life without the happy ending; imagine a bunch of Georgette Baileys who never escape the sticks, who search in vain for the significance of their provincial sufferings, wallowing in existential morbidity.
The characters express resignation and cynicism about the present, but also cautious optimism for the future; they often muse on how they will appear to observers 300 years from now—which is us, more or less—and how the only meaning that could ever be found in their suffering will be from the social progress achieved by subsequent generations, building on the accomplishments of those in the play’s present. At the beginning, the characters even predict a better future only 30 years away, a utopia of honest work for honest workers. Unspoken historical hindsight provides the irony—Stalin was less than 30 years away—which wasn’t lost on the audience at BAM; neither were the wordplay, the wit, or the realistic representations of Russianness in this supertitled, super-Russian production by St. Petersburg’s Maly Drama Theatre. The Russian-speaker sitting next to me—one of many throughout the theater—giggled from beginning to end.
Three Sisters is at BAM through April 28. More info here.
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Full disclosure: The L Magazine publishes the programs for BAM.