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Out in Jersey: This is not your mother’s “Three Sisters”

by Allen Neuner

Two River Theater in Red Bank is noted for imaginative stagings not only when it comes to new plays but also for tackling old familiar productions. Their latest effort, Madeleine George’s new translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, turns the familiar story of a family in a provincial town in nineteenth-century Russia into a phantasmagorical spectacle. This character study of romantic longings and unfulfilled dreams reaches out to connect with contemporary audiences — and succeeds brilliantly.

While the basic framework of the play is still intact, much has been added to it in terms of execution and design. Chekhov’s insights into the human condition now come with shadow puppets, two ballets — one nightmarish, one erotic — full-body puppets, a marching band, and rock concert-style lighting effects. They also come with interpolated songs by Talking Heads, Heart, and Queen, among others. The resulting mash-up grabs the audience’s attention from the start, and only lets go three and a half hours later (including intermission) at the play’s end.

Director Sara Holden directs a phenomenally gifted, non-traditionally cast troupe, headed by Anna Ishida as Olga, the eldest sister, a duty-bound teacher resigned to her lot; Annalise Lawson as Masha, the middle sister trapped in a loveless marriage; and Nemuna Caesay as Irina, the youngest sister dreaming of a return to the splendors of Moscow. Alex Brightwell makes a solid Two River debut as their older brother, Andrey Prozorov, whose dreams of becoming a professor are crushed by his pushy, vulgar wife Natasha, played by Kelly Letourneau with comedic gusto. Gabriel Levy is Kulygin, Masha’s besotted husband, while Rami Margron’s military commander Vershinin appeals to her unfulfilled romantic longings. Rudy Roushdi’s Baron Tuzenbach and Niall Powderly’s Solyony are deadly rivals for Irina’s love, while Mary Neufeld’s Dr. Cherbutykin dispenses cynical commentary on the various goings-on.

Holden’s directorial choices and George’s inspired translation are matched in creativity by the members of the design team. Jean Kim’s magnificent multi-level set becomes various indoor and outdoor spaces of the family estate. The lighting designs of Emma Dean and Caitlin Smith Rapoport transform the set into hellscapes, discotheques, early mornings, and other locations required. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes are perfect reflections of the characters wearing them, from army soldiers to the womenfolk and servants. The full-body puppets of the elderly characters Anfisa and Ferapont, crafted from the imaginations of designers Nick Lehane and Emma Wiseman, are brought to life by actors Regan Simms and Nick Ong.

This is indeed not your mother’s — or your father’s — Three Sisters. But is it a wild, fantastical experience to be savored by those playgoers who make the trip to Red Bank. This is a once-in-a-lifetime night in the theater.

I strongly urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to spend time with the Prozorov family and their friends at Chekhov’s Three Sisters!

Three Sisters is presented by Two River Theater in the Joan & Robert Rechnitz Theatre in Red Bank through June 26th.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call 732-345-1400 or visit tworivertheater.org. The theater requires the wearing of masks while in the building.