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This production can be streamed on demand starting April 23, 2021


As long as the current standard theatrical canon is taught in schools, young artists will continue to riff on the sanctified artists from their syllabi. Thus, America has seen a recent trend in irreverence toward the works of Anton Chekhov. In 2019, MCC Theatre and the Williamstown Theatre Festival presented Halley Feiffer's dark, comic response to Three Sisters titled Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow. In 2013, Woolly Mammoth Theatre presented Aaron Posner's Stupid F***ing Bird, a satirical adaptation of The Seagull which was previously announced as part of New Repertory Theatre's 2020 season. Streaming for a short period of time, Nervous Theatre and The Ellen Theatre have partnered to present Mommy's Dead and They Buried Her in Moscow, a three-performer, contemporary "riff" on Chekhov's Three Sisters. Though I know my saying it will not stop these adaptations from being undertaken, there is a wealth of tension, relevance, and commentary lost when we take Chekhov's plays out of pre-revolutionary Russia. Though a cursory read of any of his texts may seem like an idyllic stroll through privileged lives, the industrialization of Russia which contemporarily inflated the working class and weakened the bourgeoisie is a force of nature to which Chekhov was keenly attentive. When Masha, Olya, and Irina talk about privilege, education, power structures, and even gendered bias, there is little traction because the realities of their existences do not have parallels in a modern day United States- a nation whose only "revolution" was ousting one figurehead for another while severely restricting the latter's ability to actually get anything done.

Loss of specific tension considered, the ensemble, comprised of Connor Berkompas, Sympathie the Clown, and Annabella Joy have found stride in their style and hit their marks with ease. There is uniform understated-ness in their performances and a sly monotone that strikes the melancholy of the sisters they portray. If nothing else, the performance holds merit for those unfamiliar with Chekhov's play, as the subtle justifications for familial ennui in his text are laid bare and presented in simplest terms. As though the Schmoop version of the play, the characters vault through open mic nights, campy lip synchs, and musical routines which tell us rather than show us what is wrong in each of the sisters' lives. Though entertaining, the result is an ensemble of uncannily self-aware beings who exist as parodies of themselves.

The shortest road to clarity is not always the ideal path for storytelling, and with a trapdoor representing Mommy's grave, a neon sign representing the nostalgic magnetism of Moscow, and extended speeches about migratory birds and captivity, there is little for the audience to interpret or explore beyond a superficial level. As with Schmoop, we are given a narrative but nothing more. Symbolism is reduced to its basest function and the production flows through a pastiche of contemporary design choices devoid of clear intention.

Sympathie the Clown's Masha is regal and decidedly above mundanity. She is at her best when flouncing about the Ellen Theatre in a yellow gown which garishly clashes with her stunningly yellow (not blonde, yellow) hair. Arguably, she gives us the most succinct translation of character into contemporary, Angle-American syntax. Connor Berkompas' Olya is ready to take the fringe festival circuit by storm- his John Mulaney speech patterns and gentle mannerisms seem to just stretch into the realm of perception through our screens, and the style would hold up well in a black box space. Annabella Joy milks Irina's youth and simplicity and turns up a sympathetic character who is able to pull at heartstrings despite the sterile, unpoetic translation.

There is promise for very exciting work from this group. It is a disappointment that their production of Jean Genet's The Maids never made it to Boston, as such a canonically Queer, narrative-driven piece might better serve Nervous Theatre's predetermined aesthetic. I wholeheartedly support the Queer-ing of Chekhov, but without deeper political analysis, the characters still feel needlessly gloomy and redundantly restless. We've seen André Gregory strip Uncle Vanya down to its quintessence in Vanya on 42nd Street, but the removal of Natasha, the sister-in-law who provides an Eve-Harrington-esque plot line in Three Sisters, forbids this production from scratching the essence of the work.

I do not believe that Three Sisters can never be adapted to reflect the realities of the United States. I do, however, believe that there is a lot of work to be done before we can believably see parallels between these characters and the American public. Posing them as Instagram personalities ignores vital context that gives the text a heartbeat.

The production can be streamed on demand beginning April 23, 2021.

Check out more about Nervous Theatre here.

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From This Author Andrew Child