This is the season of Nine Sisters on Philadelphia’s theater scene.
Three productions of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters will be on stage at the same time — one of the play itself, and two adaptations stretching it in different directions.
It wasn’t planned. It just happened.
Three Sisters plays at the Hedgerow Theatre Feb. 6-March 3 in Sara Ruhl’s 2009 translation. It promises to stick to the script, a story of three sisters living in the Prozorov family home outside a provincial Russian town, facing desperation and uncertainty at the turn of the 20th century.
EgoPo Classic Theater is doing Three Sisters Two by South African playwright Reza de Wet from Jan. 30 to Feb. 17. Mashing up different scenes and situations from other Chekhov works, de Wet’s play sets Chekhov’s characters later: in the midst of the bloody Russian civil war of the 1920s.
And the Curio Theatre Company is doing Three Sisters, by RashDash, after Chekhov Feb. 6-March 2. RashDash is a spirited three-woman performance art group in the U.K., and their version involves crazy cabaret, song, and dance.
This season of Nine Sisters reflects many things. First is the enduring fascination of this play, which is quiet yet daring, funny yet disturbing.
Also involved are the anxieties of gender politics right now.
And because none of the three plays — one by a Russian man, another by a female South African playwright, a third by three British women — is anything like the others, it’s also a tribute to the creativity on Philadelphia’s smaller stages right now.
Harriet Power is directing the Hedgerow Sisters, her third time directing the play. Theater people are crazy for Chekhov, she says. “Maybe more than any other writer, he’s the one they’ll drop almost anything to be part of.”
Three Sisters, first produced in 1901, remains “marvelously truthful to our 2019 lives,” Power says.
The cabaret treatment at Curio, with a phantasmagorical set by Paul Kuhn, takes a light approach — with a point. Masha sings a torch song and strums an electric guitar. Irina blows bubbles in the bathtub.
“We’re asking, ‘What if a woman wrote Three Sisters?’ ” says director Meg Trelease. “What would the sisters be talking about? How would the women talk about the men?
"It’s almost as if Olga, Masha, and Irina have been holding on to these yearnings for so long that, as of 2019, we’re just going to sing them out.”
Three Sisters Two at EgoPo feels almost “like you asked a bot to write a Chekhov play,” director Brenna Geffers says.
Gender roles are reversed. And the characters have aged.
After all, it’s 20 years later. “It’s a terrible, terrible time, with the redistribution of land from the landowners to the workers,” Geffers says. "Since they were supporters, as of 1901, of the imperial system, the characters must now deal with the cataclysmic situation around them in the 1920s.”
Above all, Geffers says, “It’s a piece of theater about theater.”
Playwright Reza de Wet (1952-2012) wrote her last three plays drawing from and reworking Chekhov. “Her reimagining of these plays, encouraging us to see Chekhov differently, had plenty to say to her South African audience,” Geffers says, “and many other things to say to us.”
This accidental trio of plays can’t help but connect with the feminist moment.
True, says Power, “The sisters are circumscribed by the world of men, and there is a lot of tension and longing and frustration, but there’s a lot of feminist energy there, too. We see into these women and feel the force of their minds. It gives a voice to much that is seldom said.”
All three directors say they want theatergoers to see all nine sisters.