Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: (Vancouver) Sisters

Diversity is important but tricky
Adapted Chekhov has some problems
by David C. Jones

I am a huge advocate of diversity in casting - we live in a multi-cultural society and the mirror art holds up rarely reflects that. This adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters has eliminated about  a dozen or so characters and changed the time and location to China in 1936 - a bold concept of an already challenging play.

The Prozorova family is still a privileged family that is losing everything but now it is not just because of their folly and changing modern world;  it is also the advancing Communist hordes. The family is living on a small island off China and Irina (Luisa Jojic) and Masha (Sarah Louise Turner) are making do - dreaming of a their beloved Moscow - as they struggle through with elderly servant Anfisa (Donna White).

Natasha (Josette Jorge) is now of Chinese descent;  she married into the family having started as a servant girl. There is also a soldier from the Chinese Army named Captain Wong (John Ng) filling in for the Baron Nikolaj Lvovich Tuzenbach character.

All the other Chekhov characters are gone.

The main action of the play doesn’t kick in until very late in Act One and dramatic tension starts to rise leading to a couple of sweet scenes where Captain Wong and Irina dance shyly and another scene where the two Caucasian sisters try to calm each other down with a ukulele song.

The direction by Sarah Rogers makes some nice stage pictures but one of her challenges is some of the more expository dialogue.  “You already know this but when I first came here….”  the script could use a pruning or a second draft.

The biggest issue is making Natasha Chinese because when she starts to control the family by  demoralizing and threatening them, it becomes troublesome. Especially since the Captain Wong character (Spoiler Alert) doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Baron and instead survives. He hides out on Irina for a year, when he returns he asks for his ring back because he is marrying another woman, crushing all of Irina’s hopes. Sure he didn’t do it deliberately but it makes his character rather cold and thoughtless. Had he stayed dead as in the Chekhov play she still would be lost in a world of ‘what could’ve been’. Having him come back as false hope is mean.

The script is playing on the Communist oppression and not the racial angle but when you have a group of Chinese children come in and sing a song reminiscent of Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret while the Caucasian characters look sad, when Natasha smashes Anfisa's beloved shells and the Russian soundtrack gives way to Chinese drums, one wonders, why weren’t all the characters in this adaptation Chinese, why only the negative ones. Why not make the entire Prozorova family be a wealthy Chinese family who lose everything when the Communists arrive?

I firmly believe it was not the intent of the production or the playwright to provoke racial debate, but when you adapt plays with racial changes you have to be careful about what message you are sending lest it be misunderstood.

Until February 16

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