As many times over the years the plays of Shakespeare have been relocated to places such as Matthew Bourne’s mental institution for troubled teens, smackdab in the turmoil of World War II, rip roarin’ through the old A’murkin west, or featuring juvenile delinquents with greased hair and tight pants dancing around New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in an effort to establish their turf, perhaps the classics of no other playwright in history have been adapted more often than the angst-ridden inhabitants of that great late-19th century Russian dramatist whose work inspired the term “Chekhovian.”
From theatrical transformations such as Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Life Sucks, Tennessee Williams’ The Notebook of Trigorin, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, and Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow to Christian Carmago’s 2013 film Days and Nights and Louis Malle’s 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street, reimagining the seven plays and many short stories from the creative mind of ol ’ Anton remain among the most often rewritten.
It must take a bit of an artistic deathwish and a rather enlarged set of cajones to attempt to once again reinvent Chekhov and find something fresh to focus upon, but this new version of The Three Sisters, created by one of LA’s most enduringly prolific actor-playwrights, manages to thrill us and give us something contemporary and uniquely cutting-edged to ponder.
Three, written by Nick Salamone and presented as a co-production between Playwrights’ Arena and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, overcomes far more than the overexposure of the original source material: it transcends the Center’s cramped Davidson/Valentini Theatre, one of LA’s most limited and unwieldy places to create art—especially anything as inherently epic as anything reconstructed from the crowded framework of a play by Anton Chekhov.
Don’t get me wrong. Many successful productions have graced this same space and, for something intimate and raw, it could not provide a more perfect wellspring for promoting theatrical innovation and creativity.
Thanks to Jon Lawrence Rivera, the unstoppable and ridiculously prolific founder and artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, who directs here and has assembled a dropdead aggregation of some of our town’s best performers and designers, Three surpasses all the odds stacked against it—and then some.
This isn’t the first time Salamone—with whom I’ve had the intense pleasure of sharing a stage playing two 1930s Chicago Fascistic mob bosses in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab and as Shelley Levene opposite his fiery Ricky Roma in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross—has taken on Chekhov.
His unforgettable Gulls, which he turned into a dynamic musical version of The Seagull with composer Maury McIntyre set in 1959 Greenwich Village and Hollywood, debuted at the Boston Court under the equally inspired direction of Jessica Kubzansky and became one of the most talked about artistic achievements of 2008.
As with that production, which brought all the passion and longing and unrequited dreams of the original story into the 20th century, Three becomes a “queer meditation” of the more recent but clearly similar soul-searching challenges we face today in the twisted times which all living creatures on our mess of a planet strive to navigate.
And if such daunting challenges aren’t enough, the dexterously masochistic Salamone has given himself one more by setting each of the four acts of his play in four distinct and groundbreaking eras over the last 78 years of life in our country while his characters themselves age no more than five years.
Beginning at the end of WWII in 1946, then moving to 1982 and the beginning of the AIDS crisis during the Reagan years, Three then finds the play’s four lost siblings dealing personally with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 before concluding in our present day post-pandemic and still shell-shocked America.
Salamone explains: “Firstly, I wanted the audience to see themselves in the characters in a direct way. I made an effort to adapt Chekhov’s characters with a concern for the diversity of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that I hope will reflect our audience.
“Secondly, I wanted the adaptation to live in the world of the last century of American life in a meaningful and resonant way… I tried very hard to find analogs to the very intentions of Chekhov’s characters and the obstacles and conflicts that exist between and among them that would root my characters in these seminal American touchstones.”
Mission accomplished—bigtime. Salamone’s courageous quest finds its quintessential partner in his longtime collaborator Rivera, who has focused his whole career in championing diversity and equal rights and does so with a fierce commitment to bring the too-often overlooked art of outsiders to a more universal audience.
Here he not only furthers those efforts majestically, he has managed to also seamlessly choreograph the large cast of 10 to move around one another in an impossibly small and inhospitable playing space where even the audience members have to take their lives into their hands to settle into their seats.
Likewise, the show’s designers, especially Matt Richter’s lighting and Jesse Mandapat’s sound, work alongside Rivera devotedly and smoothly complement his clever staging.
None of this would have worked so well without this incredibly committed and trusting cast of noteworthy players however, each of whom manages to persuasively deliver their individual stories in a uniformly deferential classic playing style while still breathing real contemporary honesty into their individual characterizations.
As the sisters, Rachel Sorsa as Masha, Hayden Bishop as Irina, and Emily Kuroda as Olga are the heartbroken hearts of the production, as is James Liebman as their tortured brother and Alberto Isaac as their beloved pensive uncle who watches the drama unfold from an unsought-after ringside seat.
Rebecca Metz is, as always, a standout as the sisters’ nasty racist sister-in-law, as is Tracey A. Leigh as Masha’s torrid military love interest. Robert Almodovar, Eric B. Anthony, and Clay Storseth hold their own as the family’s various friends and lovers, helping to make this cast an early formidable candidate for Best Ensemble honors at the end of the year.
Still, nothing about Three could be this exemplary without the strikingly intelligent wordsmithery of Salamone, who doesn’t shy away from poking some sneaky fun at his own ambitious efforts along the way.
“This has been the longest night of my life,” Masha proclaims at one point as characters enter covered in dust and debris from helping out after the Oklahoma City disaster. “It’s like one of those 100-year-old Russian plays where so much goes on offstage in the third act you think it would be a fucking melodrama if anything actually happened.”
If at first the barebones elements of this production and the playing space it inhabits begin to overpower the tale, it doesn’t take long for the Homeric nature of Nick Salamone’s script and the brilliance of Jon Lawrence Rivera’s direction, exceptional ensemble cast, and design team make the Davidson/Valentini feel as though Three could be playing at the Ahmanson—which I hope someday it actually will.
THROUGH MAR. 18: Playwrights’ Arena at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Davidson/Valenti Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. www.playwrightsarena.org or lalgbtcenter.org/events/