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CFA Presents Chekhov’s Tale of Misfortune, Resilience

The Three Sisters at Boston Center for the Arts

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Alicia Hunt (CFA’11) (from left) as Masha, Marion Le Coguic (CFA’11) as Olga, and Maggie Erwin (CFA’11) as Irina star in the BU School of Theatre production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Boston Center for the Arts. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters has long been on Sidney Friedman’s wish list as a director. Friedman finds inspiration in the tale of bereaved siblings struggling to transcend the loneliness and tragic events of their lives in a provincial Russian town.

The opportunity came when the College of Fine Arts adjunct professor of dramatic literature and directing and Jim Petosa, director of the School of Theatre, were planning a student production this semester. “I suggested the play to Jim Petosa,” says Friedman. “It had been on my ‘someday’ list for many years, but I never found the right situation where I was ready to direct the play.”

The CFA production, which opens tonight at the Boston Center for the Arts, uses an American translation by the late award-winning playwright and critic Paul Schmidt, who wrote that rather than relying on British translations with their “wistful nostalgia for gentility,” American audiences require a translation of their own. (Ironically, a production using the same translation and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgard opened just two weeks ago off Broadway.)

“The script is so rich,” says Friedman, who has previously directed productions of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. “My view as a director is not to impose a concept on the show, but try to understand as fully as possible what Chekhov had in mind, and translate that to contemporary audiences.”

The play, first produced in 1901, has assumed iconic status and is regularly produced around the globe. Its events unfolding a year after the death of their army commandant father, the three sisters of the play’s title, along with their brother, search for happiness in love and work as they pine for the Moscow of their refined youth. For Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorova, diversion comes mainly in the form of visits from officers at a nearby artillery post. After plot twists involving hollow marriages, a birth, and love affairs doomed by disappointment or tragedy, the play culminates in the closing of the military base. By play’s end, the sisters each achieve, if not happiness, a kind of fatalistic equanimity. “There will come a time when everybody will know why…there is all this suffering,” declares the youngest sister, Irina. “But now we must live.”

Friedman came to BU in 1981 after directing 35 productions at Washington University in St. Louis, where he helped create the performing arts program. Three Sisters “has a lot to do with resilience,” he says. “The ending is positive. It’s not that these people are destroyed by their misfortunes; they find a way to go on. They may not understand why they go on, but they do.”

In the play, Chekhov reveals “how we respond to great misfortune, and turn to the love of family and friends,” he says, describing the playwright’s embrace of the most powerful, human themes: faith, love, and courage. “Life can kick us in the teeth, but we try to pick up the pieces and go on, and I think the sisters do that. They persevere.”

The play’s set, designed by Eleanor Kahn (CFA’11) grew out of her sense of the story as “a sort of collage of empty picture frames,” according to Friedman. “That was her response to the material, these pictures of the family that is no more, and this became the launching pad.” The design evolved as a series of skeletal walls with “reminders of domestic life. A mirror here, a clock there, kitchen implements—little fragments of home. The walls are treated as if they’re solid and real, but the statement is a little more theatrical.” Costumes, designed by Elisa Sebra (CFA’11), suggest the late 19th century, but neither costumes nor set are intended as literal, he says.

The Three Sisters features Marion Le Coguic (CFA’11) as Olga, Alicia Hunt (CFA’11) as Masha, and Maggie Erwin (CFA’11) as Irina. Le Coguic, who will reprise her role in last season’s School of Theatre production of Fallujah at the upcoming InCite Arts Festival in New York City, portrayed Kate in Harold Pinter’s Old Times. Last seen on the BU stage as Anne in CFA’s Boston Center for American Performance production of Good, Hunt’s credits include Li’l Bit in How I Learned to Drive and Miranda in The Tempest. Erwin has acted in several BU productions, including Spring Storm, as Heavenly, and Merrily We Roll Along, as Beth. The sisters’ brother, Andrei, is played by Matt Ketai (CFA’12).

The Three Sisters plays tonight, Friday, February 18, and Saturday, February 19, at 8 p.m., Sunday, February 20, at 2 and 7 p.m., Thursday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 25, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, February 26, at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Boston Center for the Arts Stanford Calderwood Pavilion Virginia Wimberly Theatre, 527 Tremont St., Boston. More information and tickets can be found here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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