Toward the end of the second act of “Three Sisters,” now running at Studio Theatre, Biko Eisen-Martin, who plays the lovesick Russian soldier Solyony, pours his heart out to — and is gently rejected by — the object of his affection. Eisen-Martin exits stage left, heads up a flight of stairs and walks onto another stage. He’s the same character, but in another play for a different audience: “No Sisters,” being performed at the same time.
“No Sisters” assistant stage manager Lauren Pekel estimates Eisen-Martin’s trip takes about 15 to 20 seconds. “He’s got pretty long legs,” she says.
Here, Solyony gets to explain and react to his heartbreak in a way that he doesn’t in Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” This new play, written and directed by Aaron Posner, imagines inner lives for many of the classic work’s minor characters — and, as the name suggests, the three sisters aren’t joining them. Where Chekhov’s story, the one being performed downstairs, hinges on three sisters living in late-1800s Russia who dream of moving to Moscow, Posner’s work stars the characters who swirl around them, including Fedotik, the soldier who thinks he can buy a woman’s affection; Natasha, the sister-in-law who can’t fit in; and Andrey, the brother who’s disappointed that his life has become boring.
In the more relaxed world of “No Sisters,” the characters also use more modern language, which Posner, who also created the D.C. Chekhov-related works “Stupid F—ing Bird” and “Life Sucks,” thinks allows them to better connect with the audience. He offers Natasha’s story as an example. “If you were a woman who was very sexually frustrated in your marriage, you would have been diagnosed with hysteria” in Chekhov’s day, Posner says, which explains why Natasha keeps those issues to herself in “Three Sisters.” “[In ‘No Sisters’], she can go ‘What the f—?!’ ”
As if creating a new show that dissects one of the greatest pieces of modern theater wasn’t complicated enough, Posner and Jackson Gay, who is directing “Three Sisters,” also share most of the same cast and production team. That means that even the tiniest tweaks Posner makes could affect whether an actor makes his or her cue downstairs.
“ ‘No Sisters’ is written entirely around ‘Three Sisters,’ because Chekhov’s dead and he won’t rewrite,” Posner says. One element of “No Sisters” that helps contextualize the work, and helps the actors keep an eye on their timing, is the array of monitors on the edges of the set, constantly showing a live feed of the stage downstairs, where “Three Sisters” is being performed.
And in Posner’s work, the characters are aware that they’re appearing in two plays, which also makes those transitions easier. “There’s something that’s kind of mystical about it,” says Kimberly Gilbert, who plays Natasha. “I have no choice but to be pulled back into the wormhole that is ‘Three Sisters.’ And then I’m released out of it every once in a while to come upstairs and vent about it.”
Gilbert, who also worked with Posner on “Stupid F—ing Bird,” says this new work will help audiences get closer to the much older play it’s based on.
“The characters down in ‘Three Sisters’ muse, ‘What are people going to be like a hundred years from now? Will they have solved all of the problems?’ And that’s all that all of us in the present day talk about now!” Gilbert says. “ ‘A hundred years from now, will we have all this bulls— stuff going on in politics, this blind ignorance? Will we evolve as a human race?’ I don’t think we’re trying to say, ‘Chekhov didn’t get it’; it’s more of a ‘Yes, and … .’ It’s ‘Yes, Chekhov is dealing with these things, and also we can go a little bit further.’ ”
So which should you see first? Though “No Sisters” writer-director Aaron Posner insists his show “can be a satisfying experience on its own,” seeing Studio Theatre’s sister production of “Three Sisters” beforehand will provide helpful context. Then again … “If people come see ‘No Sisters’ first, then they’ll have a richer experience watching ‘Three Sisters’ later,” says Kimberly Gilbert, who plays Natasha. Our advice? Dust off that Chekhov collection for a refresher on the old play before seeing “No Sisters,” and then take in “Three Sisters” with knowledge of what’s going on upstairs.