Theater Review: Reasons to Love the Maly Drama Theatre’s “Three Sisters”

I’m deeply grateful to Arts Emerson for bringing the Maly Drama Theatre to Boston and hope for more.

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. Performed in Russian with English surtitles. Directed by Lev Dodin. The Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s staging presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 6.


Ksenia Rapport as Masha, Elizaveta Boyarskaya as Irina, and Irina Tychinina at Olga in the Maly Drama Theatre production of “Three Sisters.” Photo: Viktor Vassiliev.

By Helen Epstein

Why did I love St. Petersburg’s Maly Drama Theater’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters? Let me count the ways:

One: The 80-year-old, 58-actor company presented the nearly three-hour classic uncut, cast unreduced, in all its full early 20th century glory. American opera companies still find it lucrative to produce the classics of the genre (The Met Live in HD) and America’s great orchestras still highlight – and are often lambasted for doing so – the symphonies of great 18th and 19th century composers. But the majority of America’s stages – with the exception of university theater departments and an occasional festival – have largely jettisoned our inheritance of dramas by Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, sometimes citing the expense of large casts as well as the lack of interest and short-attention spans of contemporary American theatergoers. First produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1901, starring Constantin Stanislavsky and Olga Knipper, Three Sisters is not only a major play; it is an embodiment of theater history.

Two: Take away the guys and their posturing in this lackluster garrison town in the middle of a Russian nowhere, and the core of this play is its complex group portrait of women: three orphaned and very different sisters — maternal and worried Olga, eccentric, witty Masha, and childish Irina. This trio is as famous in Slavic cultures as the Bronte sisters (with their own wastrel bother), or the March sisters of Little Women are in Anglo-American literature. The three sisters -– like the major Shakespearean roles — offer career-defining opportunities for actors, as to a lesser degree do the parts of the self-serving sister-in-law Natasha, and Chekhov’s version of the aging, devoted nanny, Anfisa.

Three: Chekhov manages to make us recognize and laugh in self-recognition at the varieties of disappointment and desperation he finds in personal and public life in pre-Revolutionary Russia. He powerfully dramatizes how desolating nostalgia for an earlier time and place can be – the sisters’ childhood home in Moscow – as well as the illness of boredom and how it culminates in the necessity for all kinds of accommodation, the seductions of compromise, depression, and violence.

Now to this production.

Director Lev Dodin was born in Siberia in 1944, the same year that the Maly Drama Theatre was founded in St. Petersburg. He began directing in 1966 and has taught generations of theater people since. “We are familiar with plans that have fallen through, lost illusions and impossible loves,” he writes in his Director’s Note in the program. “We all unfortunately understand the universal language of loss…and in this life we work to stay true to ourselves, preserving personal dignity at any cost.” Surely a man well-suited to Chekhov.

I imagine Dodin’s vision of Three Sisters is conditioned by his experiences in the Soviet Union and its aftermath. Many of the 58 actors in the company have been in the troupe for decades and their ensemble work is flawless. Most have performed with one another in Maly Drama Theatre’s productions of Shakespeare, Miller, Strindberg, and O’Neill, as well as other masterpieces by Chekhov. Their bios in the program provide an interesting intermission read: they include not only the prominent state theater institutions where they studied, but their teachers’ names, and attest to an inter-generational transmission of theater tradition that barely exists in the U.S.

There are no extras. Each actor commands the stage in his or her turn yet blends effortlessly into the many relational tableaux that director Dodin had conceived. Those beautifully posed and lit tableaux are like museum portraits that linger in the mind long after the production has ended.

Many of these images are set in the window frames of a simple, wooden outer wall of a house in the country, an edifice that moves progressively closer to the audience as the staging gives us increasingly intimate views of the characters. As would be expected of a veteran director, Dodin has a clear, coherent vision for his production and has chosen set, costume, light and sound designers who work as seamlessly with one another as the actors.

All the performers were stellar. If I didn’t always find an actor persuasive in Act I (I thought Boyarskaya Elizaveta’s Irina unsympathetic and miscast), I soon forgot my doubts. If I found the movements of the performers too studied, I soon began to take pleasure in their utter command of the stage. They spoke their lines as though they were performing music; you could read the excellently-translated English super-titles projected above their heads while floating on the sound.

I have seen great productions of Chekhov in which the cast was costumed all in white. Although the tone of this production is wry and there are moments of comic relief, the overall palette of Dodin’s Three Sisters is dark. The soldiers are dressed in drab uniforms and the civilians in dark colors. Words and themes recur like the sounds of sighs. Time passes, babies are born … When I got married, I thought we’d be happy … life is not over yet. The army doctor confesses he has forgotten all the medicine he once knew — he killed a woman on Wednesday. Irina has forgotten her Italian; she can’t even remember the word for window. None of the sisters will ever get back to Moscow. The melodic lines of longing and regret, excitement and boredom repeat over and over again, recalling, for me, the symphonies of Mahler.

I’m deeply grateful to Arts Emerson for bringing the Maly Drama Theatre to Boston and hope for more.

Helen Epstein‘s books about the arts are available at Plunkett Lake Press.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on March 4, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I want to reinforce Helen’s review. I saw the Maly Drama Theatre production last night; it is the real thing. For me, the last half of the staging reached deep down into Chekhov’s melancholy, sounding notes of aching regret and puzzlement at the fleetingness of things I have not experienced in other productions of this play. The direction reflects Beckett in its poetic sense of absurdity — the customary (and conventional) bittersweetness of Chekhov was swept away.

    For the reasons Helen cited — “Too many words, audiences today don’t have the patience for all the words,” a local director said to me sadly — we are not going to have many opportunities to see the great, expansive plays of the past produced at this impressive a level of artistry. Take advantage of the Maly’s visit …

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