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Piven's ‘Three Sisters' stilted and uneven despite solid performances

Ravi Batist(left) Joanne Underwood star 'Three Sisters' Piven Theatre. <br>

Ravi Batista (left) and Joanne Underwood star in "Three Sisters" at Piven Theatre.

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Updated: November 11, 2010 2:34PM

At the heart of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," now in an uneven production at the Piven Theatre Workshop, is a group of sophisticated, "overeducated," once-prosperous siblings - the three sisters of the title and their smart but clueless brother.

Each of these people is in a different stage of adulthood (and disillusionment). And all of them - along with a collection of other lost souls, servants and the military men who have been posted in this Russian backwater town but are about to move on - have the sense that everything around them is in flux. They also know quite well (or are beginning to understand) that suffering and disappointment are the essential ingredients of all human existence.

Using playwright Sarah Ruhl's adaptation (most notable for its deft use of a Yiddish word meaning copulation), director Joyce Piven's production often manages to capture the anguish, despair and flashes of cruelty that shoot through this play like lightning. But too frequently there is something stiff and arch about the overall effort, with the actors more often posed than allowed to move naturally, and their dialogue similarly stilted. In addition, the identity of many subsidiary characters is muddied.

There ARE several performances here that are just right, and sporadic scenes in which connections are made and everything falls tightly into place. But overall, this is an erratic production in both its pacing and focus.

Each of the play's three sisters is at odds with herself in some way.

The oldest, Olga (Joanne Underwood), is a teacher - a serious, decent spinster, exhausted by her job and plague by headaches.

The middle sister, Masha (Saren Nofs-Snyder, whose portrayal gathers steam as the play progresses), is married to Kulygin (Brent T. Barnes has nailed the guy), an exceedingly tedious pedant, and she develops an instant crush on the dashing officer Vershinin (Daniel Smith, who is young for the role but possesses the right charm and seductiveness). He is a man trapped in a marriage with a suicidal wife.

Irina (Ravi Batissta), the youngest sister, is full of hope that she will move to Moscow, start her life anew and thrive on work. But those dreams are dashed, and eluding the unwanted advances of the lonely, twisted soldier Solyony (Jay Reed expertly captures the man's alternately sinister and intensely lonely qualities), she joylessly agrees to marry the gentler Baron Tuzenbach (Andy Hager, aptly spirited but self-aware), whom she does not love.

And then there is the women's brother Andrei (a plain-spoken Dave Belden). A self-professed failure, he marries the shrewd, vulgar upstart Natasha (Amanda Hartley is terrific in her transformation from peasant to tyrannical ruler of the roost and glowing adulteress). He comes to realize his mistake too late but is resigned.

John Fenner Mays has some solid moments as the aging Chebutykin, the doctor who long ago adored the three sisters' mother. And Sarah Ruhl's mom, Kathleen Ruhl, is perfection as Anfisa, the old servant - the only contented soul in the play, who smiles as she happily describes her pensioner's room.

Aaron Menninga's set design is exceptionally lovely, with its velvety projections evoking flocked wallpaper and then birch trees in autumn. And Collin Warren's sound design and music are full of suppressed yearning, though the overall production is lacking a strong, cohesive rhythm.

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