Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: The Other Three Sisters

Johnnie Walker’s life has diverged somewhat from mine since we were two of six young, impressionable writers together in Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Unit.  Even in high school, I was impressed by his easy handling of dialogue and remembered always wanting to know what was going to happen next in the show he brought in every week. If you had asked me (and nobody did), I probably would have predicted his success. (That class of six also featured Natasha Mytnowych, so I really do feel like a Toronto theatre underachiever.)  Now, he’s of late responsible for last years’ Fringe’s acclaimed A Maude-Lynne Evening and the wildly successful Redheaded Stepchild (both involving main “sister” Morgan Norwich) and is on this week’s cover of NOW. I do some freelance dramaturgy and literary management, my “big” play won an award but never got a full production, and…I write a small theatre blog. So, as I fully disclose my slight jealousy, I must say that The Other Three Sisters is very good, and a lot of fun.

Based (loosely) on Chekhov’s play of a similar name, Walker’s sisters don’t want to move to Moscow from a small provincial Russian town; they merely want to get back across the Humber River and leave Etobicoke. Abandon hope, ye who cross the Humber! Jordana (Norwich), the motherly “Olga” of the piece, tries and fails to keep things together (with ice cream cone cupcakes) in the household for “Masha” sister Gillian, (Jamie Arfin) the artist, not a pianist but the surgically-enhanced star of a Vancouver-filmed sci-fi series; and childish and ennui-filled “Irina” sister Kris (Alexandra Parravano, of my high school graduating class), whose life can be over at the end of a movie.  A deceased father, absent mother and charming but "drifting" (to say the least) brother, Rowan (Julian De Zotti), who may be a boy in a plaid shirt or a subway, depending on when you ask him, round out the sisters’ family baggage. 

The show is arch without being artificial, occasionally subverting theatrical convention with narrative sense. As things spiral into chaos and back again, supernatural and magical elements gradually insert themselves into the plot in a way the audience is more than willing to go with. This is one of the few Fringe plays with necessarily (comparatively) elaborate costumes and props that add to our enjoyment of the evening.  The show is occasionally aggressively wacky; it says something that the audience’s “entry”  into the show, in character terms, might not even really be there.  Each character grounds and then throws the show off in turn, alternately sympathetic and crazed, with an emphasis on crazed. Like Chekhov, while plot is necessary, it is the characters who are indelible.

Jordana is a 27-year-old community college teacher struggling to get enough courses to make enough money to live on her own, instead of at home. Let’s just say it would be tough for this character not to resonate with this reviewer, because check, check, check, check and also check. Norwich is appealingly twitchy as a woman who can’t seem to choose between fending off the madness and giving into it. Arfin is great as the gradually-plasticizing Gillian who describes certain situations as “totally siblings.” Parravano throws herself into a robust characterization of a twentysomething who isn’t quite not a teenager yet, and De Zotti is an appealing and magnetic break from the estrogen who makes you believe in his centrality to the lives of the others.

Though tonally, the sisters can sometimes gets a little over-pitched, shouty and shrill, and it does bother me a bit that, like so many other shows, the larger actress’ body is dressed and played for laughs, the dialogue is smart and funny and revelations intrigue. Watching the show, you get the feeling that, just like Chekhov’s sisters, Walker’s will end up in the end of a Beckett play: “They do not move.”


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