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UW-Eau Claire to showcase 'The Three Sisters'

The following story appeared in the April 12 Leader-Telegram and is reprinted here with permission. Leader-Telegram staff photo by Marisa Wojcik. 

"The Three Sisters" will be presented April 16-18 and April 22-25 at 7:30 p.m. and April 26 at 1:30 p.m. in Kjer Theatre. Ticket information is available by calling the UW-Eau Claire Service Center at 715-836-3727.

The upcoming UW-Eau Claire play attempts to find the similarities between 1903 Russia and 2005 Detroit while walking the line between tragedy and comedy. 

Director Arthur Grothe said "The Three Sisters," originally written by Anton Chekhov in 1903, has an interesting history.

"It's turn of the century Russia when the Aristocracy is falling and the merchant class is rising," he said. "He thought he wrote a comedy. He really would've said this is (like) 'Seinfeld,' if he knew of 'Seinfeld' today, and (was) making fun of this Aristocracy that couldn't change, couldn't evolve."

"The Three Sisters" opens Thursday at UW-Eau Claire's Kjer Theatre. Grothe said the show focuses on three sisters, as the name may suggest, and their brother. 

"The very short version is, the sisters want to get to Moscow (and) they never get to Moscow," Grothe said with a chuckle. "The longer version is the father has died, the family is left leaderless and they are trying to find their way in this new world. They can't move on."

The play basically bombed, Grothe said, until Konstantin Stanislavsky directed it as a tragedy. 

"We've worked pretty hard to juxtapose the humor with the tragic elements and walk a line between Chekhov and Stanislavsky's different interpretations," he said, noting it's not slapstick, but much more situational comedy and the humor feeds into the tragic element of it. 

Working on "The Three Sisters" is a great opportunity for students because "Chekhov is one of our founding of fathers of realism … so I think it's good to back to the roots of where did this whole realism thing start from," Grothe said.

However, the point wasn't just "trot out this museum piece and put it on display" and recreate 1903 Russia. UW-Eau Claire is doing a translated version compiled by Sarah Ruhl, who Grothe said has "become the toast of the theater world recently" and has a very conversational, lyrical quality that manifests in this version of the play. 

"We — being the design team and myself — were kind of searching for a place to put it that might help us access it a little bit more so we settled on 2005 Detroit because you have a lot of similar issues — a place where industry had left, fallen apart, people were unable to move on. A place that was in dire straits by 2008."

Transporting it to a more modern period definitely makes it easier to connect to, said assistant director Jake Lindgren. 

"By keeping it in a modern, contemporary head space the line delivery and inflections come easier and it definitely makes more sense," he said. "When I read it for the first time last fall — I had a seen a production years ago so I was re-reading it — it can be really dry on the page and seeing it come to life with the humor that is intended, it's a great piece and it's absolutely relateable still today to contemporary audiences."

The modern time also gave them a little more leeway for creativity.

"The set is kind of much more abstract to represent the steel of Detroit," Grothe said. "... It's built out well past the proscenium to help bring the show to the audience."

It allowed cotton and other fabrics to be used in the costumes as well.

"A guy can be in khakis and a t-shirt and still tell the same story," Lindgren said. 

Lindgren said the show really encompassed the "gray emotions," which he enjoys exploring. 

"You can hate a character at one point, but still agree with them, still get it, still understand," he said. 

"Seeing the students embrace those more difficult emotional challenges and commit to them has been really exciting to watch," Grothe added. 

While the show may be a bit complex for junior high students and younger, Lindgren encouraged high school and college students especially to come see it.

"This would be a really great introduction to Chekov, to realism and to the older playwrights who do have the stigma of being boring and dry," he said. 

Miels can be reached at 715-833-9214, 800-236-7077 or emily.miels@ecpc.com.