Theater Review

Undermain's enchanting Three Sisters feels like a storybook brought to life

Undermain's enchanting Three Sisters is a storybook brought to life

Three Sisters at Undermain Theatre in Dallas
Jenny Ledel, Benjamin Bratcher, and the cast of Three Sisters. Photo by Katherine Owens

Undermain Theatre's unique space can be a tricky one, with its stout concrete columns and lowered ceiling, but when the creative elements come together just, right it's an atmosphere that can be nothing short of magical.

Longtime Undermain collaborator John Arnone has transformed the basement theater into a fairy tale-like forest for Chekhov's Three Sisters, enveloping the audience with spindly birch branches and tinkling crystal chandeliers. It creates a dreamlike effect where characters wander silently through the treed outskirts as if sleepwalking, and subconsciously draws the audience into the living and dining rooms of Olga, Masha, Irina, and their various kith and kin.

The famous play is here translated by Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl, and she expertly captures the poetic bluntness of Russian ennui. The characters complain that nothing happens, though romance, scandal, death, and discord swirl around them. It's all too, too dull to them, and fascinating to us. Ruhl's dialogue is eminently accessible, made even more so by Katherine Owens' bright direction.

Stuck in a provincial Russian town but longing for the excitement of their childhood city of Moscow, the sisters are each trapped in their own way. Illicit passion, stifled creativity, and the equal parts excitement and boredom that come from having soldiers stationed in their provincial town envelops the girls, each of whom is waiting for her real life to start while ignoring the everyday dramas that are already happening.

A clear-eyed Jenny Ledel constantly battles expectations as the baby of the family, retaining the fresh innocence of youth while projecting reluctantly earned wisdom as her Irina begins accepting adult responsibilities. Joanna Schellenberg is her mirror as eldest sister Olga, presented as a weary spinster but with a hidden spring in her step when she dreams of abandoning her exhausting work as a headmistress and starting anew in Moscow. Shannon Kearns, exquisitely cast as the melancholy Masha, is so filled with longing — for love, fulfillment, anything! — that it's a wonder her feelings don't explode in a rush, rather than drip from her tightly controlled exterior.

As schoolteacher Kulygin, Brandon J. Murphy cheerfully ignores his wife's burgeoning affair with the "Lovesick Major," a philosophizing lieutenant colonel played with subdued amusement by Bruce DuBose. Another who's busy straying is Natasha (Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore, pleasantly petulant but never grating), a local girl who married into the grand family through the lone brother, Andrei (an often appropriately bewildered and resigned Justin Duncan), and who now relishes her position as matriarch.

A trio of servants and collection of soldiers round out the bodies that choreographer Danielle Georgiou moves on and off the stage (one, the haunting Dean Wray, sometimes executing impressive Russian squat kicks).

Outfitted by Giva Taylor in everything from floor-skimming dresses to vibrantly patterned country shawls to smart soldiers' uniforms studded with shiny brass buttons, the company feels as if they've been snatched from a storybook and deposited, if only briefly, on a small stage under a street in Dallas. Blink, and you might find yourself waking up from this dream.

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Undermain Theatre's production of Three Sisters runs through March 11.

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