The Russians Are Coming!: ‘Three Sisters’ Storms the Mainstage

The Loeb Mainstage, available to only two undergraduate productions each semester, is a mixed blessing. The huge and technically advanced space easily accommodates imaginative American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) shows, and thus is any set designer’s dream. The exposure of a Mainstage show also draws top actors into a cast. But with great opportunity comes high expectations—and the possibility for great disappointment—both in regard to the quality of show and the quantity of ticket sales. Director Dorothy “Dot” A. Fortenberry ’02 and producers Naomi R. Krakow ’02 and Nicole C. Ruiz ’02 have taken on the challenge, though, offering a fresh look at Chekov’s Three Sisters.

The title siblings of Three Sisters deal with issues “such as adultery, forbidden love and sexual tensions,” said Ruiz. Despite relevant subject matter, however, Russian literature carries a reputation for being long and boring. Fortenberry and her team, therefore, are making an effort to increase the play’s accessibility. They have taken Three Sisters out of its turn-of-the-century setting and situated it in the present day. Fortenberry has also selected a clear American translation by Paul Schmidt, circumventing the stilted language in some British versions. And young actresses have been cast to make the characters more believable; professional productions of Three Sisters often feature older actresses playing younger characters.

But while Chekov’s work may be relevant to Harvard students of today, there is no guarantee that Three Sisters will fill the 556-seat auditorium. Audiences will likely shrink during Harvard-Yale weekend, when many students leave for New Haven. And dramatic works may have even more trouble finding an audience than dance or musical shows. Over 1,600 people saw this semester’s dance show, Against the Grain. Compare that to the approximately less than 600 people who saw Marcus Stern’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Great God Brown last semester. This despite a Crimson review which raved, “[Great God Brown] raises the bar for student theater so high that it is likely to be a while before another show approaches its level of utter excellence.”

The staff of Three Sisters is working diligently to increase its profile and attract the large audiences that the Loeb can accommodate. “We feel there is a need to reach a broader community, so we have focused considerable efforts in reaching students and faculty on other campuses,” said Ruiz. Three Sisters has distributed posters in Boston and on other college campuses, contacted professors at other schools and is even offering group rates to professors and students studying literature or theater.

Two events designed to bolster attendance will also take place during the second weekend of the run. The Nov. 15 show is a benefit performance held in conjunction with Project Health. And, after the Nov. 17 matinee, a symposium is scheduled to discuss the show and its history. A panel drawn from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the ART are expected. The producers aim to attract graduate students and professors with the symposium event, and hope the high caliber panel will appeal to those interested in Russian history and literature.

As the largest scale dramatic production this semester, the theater community is looking to Three Sisters to do more than fill seats, though. The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) board is attempting to increase the number of available tech staffers in the Harvard community. They planned to hold a series of technical theater workshops to train tech staffers and have attendees do supervised tech work for the show. “Our workshops were an attempt not only to help production of the show along, but also to address the problem of a tech/design staff shortage that has long been a problem for Harvard shows,” Ruiz said.

But all did not go as planned. “Apparently our ruse was a bit transparent” joked technical director Jennifer W. Thompson ’02. “I don’t know how the other workshops went ... but the construction ones weren’t well attended.” Thompson suggests that techies had already committed themselves to other projects by the time the mid-semester workshops were held. Ruiz also conceded, “A few problems came from the simple fact that we were trying to do something new,” Nevertheless she expressed “hope that future mainstage shows will expand on the workshop system further.”

Though Three Sisters has not succeeded in helping the HRDC cultivate new members in the tech community, the show approaches tonight’s opening with great excitement. The artistic elements in the show have come together to the staff’s satisfaction and they are anticipating healthy crowds. Fortenberry, ultimately sees the key to the show’s appeal in the way it relates to students. “I wanted people in the audience to see themselves in the sisters,” she said.

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