Chanel Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Phillip Christian, Nathan Dame, Carmen de Lavallade, Daphne Gaines, Carmen Gill, Earle Hyman, Lisa Johanson, Billy Eugene Jones, Anthony Laylor, Sabrina LeBeauf, Jonathan Earl Peck, Johnny Ramey, Roger Guenveur Smith, Josh Tyson, Amanda Mason Warren
Adding yet another New York Chekhov production into the mix, Harlem Stage and Classical Theatre of Harlem’s coproduction of Three Sisters, directed by Christopher McElroen, is uneven but intermittently enjoyable.
The play revolves around a household in rural Russia. Andrey and his three sisters – Irina, Olga, and Masha – are followed over the course of four years, their lives eventually complicated by Andrey’s squandering away of their estate with the help of his extravagant new wife Natasha and their various romantic entanglements and affairs.
With a diverse group of actors of all races coming together to present the play, it’s not the colorblind casting (which feels natural) but rather the uneasy clash of acting styles that stands out as a negative here.
Highlights among the cast are Carmen Gill as Irina – whose stunning appearance and vocal inflection allow her character to grow and change with ease – as well as Amanda Mason Warren as Masha, and Daphne Gaines as the wicked Natasha, threatening to change the household’s way of life.
But the men acquit themselves rather less well, often resorting to overacting and undue grandiosity. Joshua Tyson as Irina’s suitor Tuzenbach does a fine job despite being in the company of rather uneasy men.
The theatre is arranged in a runway configuration, with the audience seated on either side, allowing the audience to eavesdrop on its fellow observers. But this sometimes serves as a distraction rather than as an enhancement because of the languid nature of what’s happening on stage.
Despite impressive design elements, including Persian rug sets by Troy Hourle and regal – sometimes airy – costumes by Kimberly Glennon, the production doesn’t really take off until after intermission. McElroen’s direction seems largely static, and the production has a hard time eliciting interest in the first half’s minimally plotted scenes until the big moments of the play – including the revelation of the house’s mortgage – allows for showy emotional displays.
During the second half of the evening, the pace picks up and the production is livelier and more engaging. Chekhov’s plays are always slow to burn, and the real meat of the play usually comes at the conclusion; this is as true as ever here. The challenge for a production is to somehow imbue the human drama of the set-up with enough intrigue to incite a theatergoer’s interest early on. Unfortunately, that never happens here, and the production – despite the accomplishments of several of its actors – is the lesser for it.