As a daring new production of “Three Sisters” begins at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, the furniture in the house that makes up the show’s main set is covered with cloths. As the furniture is uncovered, three young actors, meant to represent the play’s title characters as young girls, begin marching in place, center stage. On an old-fashioned record player, Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” — which asks the question, “You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’ ” — is playing, loudly.
Two actors hold a screen in front of the three marching girls for a moment. The theater goes dark, they drop the screen, and — voila!— there are the three adult actresses who play the grown-up sisters, marching where the younger actresses had just been.
Besides being exciting in its own right — it was met with a big round of applause the night I attended — the rocking, magic-trick opening serves notice that this “Three Sisters” is going to play by its own rules. Or throw out the rules altogether. As directed by Sara Holdren, using a new translation by Madeline George of the 1901 Anton Chekhov classic, this production features non-traditional casting, anachronistic props and costumes (one character wears a Joy Division T-shirt), puppetry, and recordings by Heart, Neko Case, Queen and Dschinghis Khan, in addition to Talking Heads.
According to the program, the setting is the usual for “Three Sisters”: “a small provincial city.” But the time is defined as “Always.”
This is probably the first Chekhov production to feature a selfie. And a macabre dance segment. Masha (played by Annelise Lawson), one of the three sisters, and the army officer Vershinin (Rami Margron) express their attraction to each other through a dance, set to Heart’s “Alone,” that’s choreographed as if it’s from an ’80s MTV video. The elderly servants of the play’s central family are depicted via life-sized puppets (manipulated by Nick Ong and Rega Simms).
Even with all the modern and, at times, eccentric frills, Chekhov’s dark vision comes through loud and clear. The play’s characters are stuck — in that small provincial city, dreaming of returning to Moscow someday. But they’re also stuck through the circumstances of their family ties and love lives. Ultimately, violence and heartbreak come to their boring, frustrating lives.
The oldest sister Olga (Anna Ishida) is a humorless spinster. Middle sister Masha, married to the somewhat nerdy high school Latin teacher Kulygin (Gabriel Levey), has an affair with Vershinin, an old family friend who has been brought to the town to command the army battalion that is stationed there. The youngest sister, Irina (Nemuna Ceesay), is being courted by two soldiers, Solyony (Niall Powderly) and Tuzenbach (Rudy Roushdi); she doesn’t love either, but agrees to marry one anyway. Meanwhile, the sisters’ brother, Andrey (Alex Brightwell), marries the annoying, unfaithful Natasha (Kelly Letourneau), and struggles with a gambling addiction.
The three young actresses who play the sisters in their youth reappear at times. I honestly didn’t see what the point of that was. More could have been with this idea. This isn’t really a flaw, though, just a missed opportunity.
“Three Sisters” is not a play devoid of humor, or even hope. But it’s not an obvious candidate for the kind of freewheelingly creative approach Holdren has taken.
Still, she has found a way to add theatrical excitement without impinging on the dignity of the play itself, and that’s a remarkable achievement. I highly recommend seeing this “Three Sisters.”
The Two River Theater in Red Bank presents “Three Sisters” through June 26; visit tworivertheater.org.