All people are unhappy, even those who convince themselves they have found happiness. For in those brief moments where jubilation is achieved, one realizes they will never be as joyful as they are now, and each moment from that point on will be spent trying – slowly, carefully, and destructively – to reclaim that feeling.

The Three Sisters by Anton Chekov, the most recent McMaster Thespian Company production by director Bahar Orang, captures this internal, gnawing complexity. It is a smorgasbord of raw emotion and artistic splendor. At its best, the production is like sitting in a tub of gasoline, putting one’s toaster in yellow liquid, and then dropping a match while trying to lather. It is intense, it is proactive, and it will make you feel like shit, pull you back with hope, then drag you through the shit again.

The entire play is touched by subtlety, where each word, action, and movement is intentionally pointing toward the hopelessness felt by the characters. Even the physical objects – a key, a gun, a simple notebook – take on a poetic significance. Orang’s creative vision highlights this metaphorical work in motion; it points towards the timelessness of the piece with an elaborate set design and a modern wardrobe, and the constant signing of popular songs, like Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World,” reminds the audience of the inevitability of all beautiful things being lost to, and defined in, complete sadness.

Yet remove the intricacies, boil off the artistic nuance, and what remains as the distillate is a play about nothing at all. Any movement is stifled; any action is drowned in hesitance and disappointment. The dialogue is selfish and egotistical. No one character actually speaks to the other. Instead, all live in their own self-absorbed universe, and everyone else is just planetary trash that circle and block out the sunlight of their world. This vanity goes on and on and on until the maximum point where lives are ruined, put back together, and then ruined by the same problems and desires that tormented them in the first place.

While powerful in its creative mission, the characters themselves, no fault of the actors, are archetypal. As cookie-cutter psychological and emotional moulds, their responses to action becomes predictable. But this is a necessary evil. With so much happening, with so many layers falling atop of one another at once, from the irony of the cyclic cynicism that defines the town to the inevitability of complete self-destruction, the various characters do not have the chance to become fully realized. They instead are half-baked, half-captured, and consequently miserable for the rest of their lives.

The cast, though, shines in light of these necessarily self-imposed, Chekovean caricatures. Jordan Hallin stumbles, mumbles, and bumbles around as Chebutykin, a drunken fool, with poise that suggests the worn practice of the bottle. Zac Williams’ Solyony cuts the dark undertone of the play with apt humour and trenchent goofiness. Sage Hyden’s depiction of Vershinin expertly captures the inner binaries of being a soldier, a father, and a lover, and the inconsistency when wanting none of the responsibilities. Tuzenbach, played by Evan Hookong-Taylor, bubbles around as a bat who is both blind to his own misgivings and the unhappiness he causes through forced peppiness. Cas Boivin – who, as his character Kulygin always states, deserves an A – aptly contrasts the deep emotional undertones of the drama until the point of hilarity and absurdity. Daniella Rodriquez’s Anfisa underscores the moral decrepitude of each individual, and serves as a constant reminder of the sorrow, hardships, and disappointment that life brings if left unchecked.

Only one character manages to see beyond his blunders and his misery: Mitchell Logue’s Andrey. As the sole brother to the three sisters, he fills the void of their emptiness, and thus, feels empty as a result. This is even true in his marriage to Natasha, acted by Tegan O’Brien. It takes a true performer to make one hate a fictional person, and Tegan’s interpretation of Natasha as a being of mood swings, bitchiness, and forcefulness is so good one can’t help but hate it.

The three sisters, to which the play is named, encapsulate thematic elements of organized chaos. They are all different, and yet their problems are shared and experienced together. Olga, performed by Jessica Teicher, is the eldest but arguably the most broken. All responsibilities are pushed on her, and as a result, she – demonstrated in Jessica’s poignant monologues – manages none of them. Erin Dyskstra, who plays Masha, is the most volatile powderkeg of a character. Contradictions riddle each action, and Erin brings these out in their raw, sometimes unsettling forms. The youngest sister, Irina, is caught in these two extreme models. Jamie Gallagher’s portrayal of Irina is soft and touching, and each movement and dialogue points to Irina’s innocence and eventual loss of self.

No one character is any more vital than the rest. What results is a clusterfuck of unadulterated passion, splendid acting, and a vivid display of deadbeat lives in a deadbeat town doing deadbeat things. But once placed under Orang’s dramatic microscope, when highlighted by an expert ensemble, and when combined with the stage production of Nazaneen Hosseinpour, the lives, once dull and boring, become anything but. They take on significance, if only for a little while.

The play opens Friday Apr. 4 at 8 PM, and performances follow on the 5th, and 6th at 2 PM and 8 PM.

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