Here’s an odd pairing. On the one hand you’ve got Anton Chekhov, Russia’s poet of stasis, revered for a handful of delicate tragicomedies about minor aristocrats slipping into lives of quiet desperation. On the other, the Hypocrites, Chicago’s jolly party ensemble, known lately for a Pirates of Penzance done beach-bash-style, an H.M.S. Pinafore performed in PJs, an Into the Woods set in an outsize playroom. Even All Our Tragic—the company’s marathon effort to visit every extant Greek tragedy—played out as gory fun, meals thrown in.
So what happens when the Hypocrites decide to take on Chekhov for the first time in 15 years, presenting his Three Sisters in a version adapted and directed by Geoff Button, the guy behind the toy-box Sondheim? A surprisingly fruitful collaboration.
Three Sisters is the one about Olga, Masha, and Irina, grown daughters of the late, great Prozorov, a widowed brigade commander who’s been dead a year when the action of the play begins. Although the girls live in a garrison town somewhere in the sticks, sharing a house with their brother, Andrei, they were raised in Moscow and harbor a nostalgia for the metropolis bordering on obsession. Irina in particular yearns to go back and confidently, repetitively sets dates for the move. As the youngest, she still holds out hope of marrying a city boy, thus shaking off those little town blues permanently.
It isn’t giving anything away to say her hopes are vain. The Prozorovs resemble well-educated lemmings, inexorably following one another off the cliff into provincial mediocrity. Twenty-eight years old when we first meet her, Olga has already put herself on the tenure track to nowhere by taking a position at the local school. Middle sister Masha married Fyodor, a Latin instructor, when she was 18 and he seemed terribly sophisticated, only to have his appalling pomposity revealed to her over the ensuing years. Andrei, meanwhile, was once fawned over as the golden child of the family, certain to land a professorship at a major (i.e., Moscovite) university. The process by which he’s separated from that dream is at once farcical and pathetic.
The garrison constitutes the only show in town for these folks. And vice versa. A ragged coterie of soldiers gathers around the Prozorov table, savoring the touch of femininity and flirtation they find there. Of course, a tremendous amount of pining goes on. Masha falls for soulful Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, who’s looking in turn for relief from his whacked-out wife. Irina is pursued by nerdy-sweet Baron Tuzenbach and his scary pal, a choleric misfit named Solyony. The elderly, alcoholic, ever-present army doctor Chebutykin serves as a kind of Ghost of Yearnings Past inasmuch as he claims to have loved the sisters’ mother back in the day.
There’s a good amount of incident in Three Sisters, including troop movements, a duel, and a fire that sweeps away a big chunk of town. But as with other Chekhov plays, the real action lies inside the hearts and under the breaths of the variously stifled characters. Conventional productions attune themselves to the subtexts haunting every exchange. Thing is, the Hypocrites are all about driving subtext into the open. From what I’ve seen of their output, they use high-concept strategies (the playroom, the beach bash), bright design, and self-referential acting to keep everything solidly superficial.
Button has built a nice hybrid here. Overwhelmed by the social norms and rotten choices that keep them stuck in place, Masha, Irina, Olga, Andrei, and the gang are necessarily condemned to live in subtext. That’s just who they are. Button clearly appreciates their situation and therefore finds ways to usher them into the playful Hypocrites aesthetic without subverting, betraying, or reducing them to caricature. The dialogue is colloquial but respectful; the acting comic but never outlandish. A few repeated actions say a lot. And there’s a color-coded design scheme that very blatantly tells you all you need to know about the flow of power in the Prozorov household yet somehow doesn’t disrupt the sense of naturalism. (That color motif feels as ominous and fascinating as watching the time-lapsed progress of a tumor in a brain scan.)
It helps greatly too that the cast are so good. Among the sisters, Mary Williamson gives us Olga as a genial workhorse, Lindsey Gavel isn’t afraid to be nasty as embittered Masha, and Hilary Williams’s Irina comes across as a lamb on her way to slaughter. Which is pretty much what she is. Joel Ewing’s Andrei is discombobulated in an appropriately trivial way, Noah Simon’s Tuzenbach heartbreaking in a tragically nebbishy way, and Jonathan Pryce look-alike Bill McGough renders Dr. Chebutykin as the sort of damned soul who comes up with a parting witticism as he disappears into hell. It’s Erin Barlow, though, who offers a revelation as Andrei’s wife, Natasha. The character is usually played as merely uncouth; Barlow makes her mean, canny, grasping, and manipulative as well, and so becomes the dynamic center of the show, spreading her color palette wherever she goes. v
Correction: This article has been amended to correctly reflect the names of two of the characters and the actors who play them. Irina, the youngest sister, is played by Hilary Williams, Masha, the middle sister, by Lindsey Gavel.