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Vivienne Benesch Is Directing a New Version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters for PlayMakers Rep

The <em>Three Sisters</em> cast (from left) includes Arielle Yoder, Allison Altman, and Marinda Anderson as Masha, Irina, and Olga Prozorova and Joshua David Robinson as Aleksander Vershinin (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The cast (from left) includes Arielle Yoder, Allison Altman, and Marinda Anderson as Masha, Irina, and Olga Prozorova and Joshua David Robinson as Aleksander Vershinin (photos by Jon Gardiner)

Vivienne Benesch will begin her tenure as PlayMakers Repertory Company’s new producing artistic director with a bold, new interpretation of Russian physician, playwright, and short story writer Anton Chekhov’s 1901 domestic drama, Three Sisters, based on a new version of this masterpiece of Chekhovian ennui adapted by Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director emerita Libby Appel from a literal translation by Allison Horsley. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s professional-theater-in-residence will preview their provocative production on Jan. 20-22. There will be an opening-night gala with post-show reception, staring at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23rd; and the show will run Jan. 24 and 26-31 and Feb 2-7 in the Paul Green Theatre in university’s Center for Dramatic Art.

“I first read Three Sisters in college for an acting class,” recalls Vivienne Benesch, who previously served as artistic director for the Chautauqua Theater Company of Chautauqua, NY. “I learned more from working on one scene from this play than I had from every other scene for the entire semester put together…. Every great acting lesson is in there. Twenty years later, I had the great fortune of playing Olga in a very deconstructed and raw production at Chautauqua Theatre Company.”

Benesch, who previously directed In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) (2011), Red (2012), and Love Alone (2014) for PlayMakers Rep, adds, “This play is more full of life than nearly any other play I know. Chekhov examines the truth of the human heart and draws us into an exploration of resiliency and hope. He is revealing to us how humanity and nature carries on in the face of boredom, tragedy, disappointment, failure, and death.

“The wonderful thing about Chekhov, thank God, is that while all of these things sound terribly depressing, he gifts us with humor and a life force that is contagious,” declares Benesch. “The play is full of the love, laughter, and idiosyncratic behavior that gets each of us through the existential stasis of our lives as we manage the space between our dreams and reality. While this may sound very ‘heady,’ the great challenge for a director is bringing all that humanity to the surface and letting it explode into the audience’s lap.”

Allison Altman and Ray Dooley star as Irina Prozorova and Ivan Chebutykinin <em>Three Sisters</em> (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Allison Altman and Ray Dooley star as Irina Prozorova and Ivan Chebutykinin (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Benesch confesses, “I also wanted to direct [Three Sisters], because of Libby Appel’s translation — Libby’s excellent and fresh translation/adaptation! (PlayMakers audiences recently enjoyed her wonderful direction of Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike [2014], Christopher Durang’s hilarious conflation of several Chekhov works.)

“Libby has been in a self-proclaimed passionate love affair with Chekhov since she was 16, after reading The Cherry Orchard for a high school English class. She immediately started learning everything there was to know about him; and, over the course of her incredible career, she has directed most of his plays several times, used them to teach actors all over the country and, more recently, adapted and published all four of his major works. Her Three Sisters is rich with the fruits of that lifelong relationship,” Vivienne Benesch points out.

Benesch says, “Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov family — three daughters and the son of a decorated Russian military general: Olga (Marinda Anderson), Masha (Arielle Yoder), and Irina (Allison Altman). They dream of leaving the small town they now live in and returning to Moscow, where they grew up.

“The play opens in 1901, on Irina’s 20th birthday,” notes Vivienne Benesch. “As she and her sisters prepare to celebrate, they are joined by several members of the military who populate the town: Chebutykin (Ray Dooley), an elderly doctor who loved their deceased mother; Tuzenbakh (Daniel Bailin), an aristocrat in love with Irina; Solyony (Schuyler Scott Mastain), an oddball romantic and the new battery commander; and Vershinin (Joshua David Robinson). Also present are Masha’s husband, the school teacher Kulygin (Daniel Pearce), and their old nurse maid Anfisa (Julie Fishell). The party is joyous despite its falling on the one year anniversary of their father’s death.”

Benesch adds, “Their brother Andrei (Benjamin Curns) is a scholar and musician and in love with a local girl, Natasha (Carey Cox). The play covers a time span of five years in the lives of the Prozorov sisters. Love is found and lost; dreams are destroyed and reborn; a fire threatens to destroy the town; and despite it all, the family continues on with faith in the future.

“Will Irina find true love? Will Olga get married? Will Masha’s marriage survive? Do they get to Moscow? Join us Jan. 20th-Feb. 7th to find out!” says Vivienne Benesch.

Besides the actors named above, the PRC cast also includes Jorge Donoso as Aleksei Petrovich Fedotik and Samuel Byron Frazelle as Bladirmi Karlovich Roday. The Ensemble includes Katy Castaldi, Zachary Cook, Dyson Ford, and Emma Gutt; and cellist Isabel Castellvi, will provide instrumental accompaniment.

Joshua David Robinson and Arielle Yoder star as Aleksander Vershinin and Maria (Masha) Prozorova (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Three Sisters stars Joshua David Robinson as Aleksander Ignatyevich Vershinin and Arielle Yoder as Maria (Masha) Sergeyevna Prozorova (photo by Jon Gardiner)

In addition to PRC producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch, the PlayMakers Repertory Company for Three Sisters will include assistant director Kathryn Hunter-Williams, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer Alexis Distler, costume designer Tracey Christensen, lighting designer Peter West, sound designer/engineer Maria Wurttele, composer Ari Picker, dramaturg Adam Versényi, vocal coach John Patrick, stage manager Hannah-Jean Farris, and assistant stage manager Charles K. Bayang.

“The story of this play is more of an emotional journey than a plot-driven one,” claims Vivienne Benesch. “People talk a lot, instead of doing anything…. How do we make that active? How do we fill the emotional life to its fullest and allow for surprises? Chekhov is heaven for actors and designers, because there are endless layers to unfold. You can just keep going deeper and deeper. There’s the literal and the abstract. There’s the tragic and the comic. There’s the epic and the minute. The challenge is making it as moving and entertaining for the audience as it is for us.”

She adds, “The set is designed by Alexis Distler, returning to PlayMakers after her wonderful design for Trouble in Mind last season. It is a large, abstract white space which functions as the drawing room and dining room of the Prozorov household for the first half of the evening and then as the sisters’ bedroom and the garden in the second half. It is all white-birch colored, invoking the forests and groves which would have surrounded the family home.”

She adds, “One of the ideas we are exploring with the space is depth: what’s in the foreground, mid-ground and background? How do each of these tell parts of the story? Time in this play is fractured, split apart never again to become whole. So, the set reflects that changing relationship with time. As the play progresses, the sisters have less and less room inside the house, until — in the final scene — they are no longer in it at all and proverbially become part of nature.”

“The costumes designed by Tracy Christensen are a classical period silhouette, but with a slight nod to the modern,” notes Vivienne Benesch. “I didn’t want the play to feel stuffy, so Tracy and I decided to ‘relax’ the look a little, so that the clothes felt more like wardrobe than ‘costume.’ That said, most of the men in the play are all in military clothing; and we have gone quite traditional with those uniforms.”

“In our production of Three Sisters Ari Picker has composed music for a cellist (Isabel Castellvi), who will be on stage the entire play,” says Vivienne Benesch. “What makes this so very exciting is that the cello is so close to the human voice. It will serve as an expression of all that humanity! It is sometimes reminiscent of Moscow and of the sisters’ dreams, sometimes of their beloved mother, or of nature, or simply of the emotional dynamics of the scene.

“Having Ari and Isabel in the room as the company rehearses has made for a unique experience,” says Benesch. “Moments or pauses deepen — or, in some cases, lift — with each note. Chekhov has significant music cues written into most of his plays; and adding the live cello brings him into the room with us. We layer the live music with a nuanced sound design by Maria Wurttele. Maria (fresh from working on Hamilton on Broadway) layers in the sounds of the town, the people and Time itself. Together, these three artists are helping to crack open the hidden gems in Three Sisters.”

<em>Three Sisters</em> stars Allison Altman and Ray Dooley (in the foreground) as Irina Prozorova and Ivan Chebutykin and Joshua David Robinson, Daniel Pearce, and Daniel Bailin (in the background) as Aleksander Vershinin, Fyodor Kulygin, and Nikolai Tuzenbakh (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Three Sisters stars Allison Altman and Ray Dooley (in the foreground) as Irina Prozorova and Ivan Chebutykin and Joshua David Robinson, Daniel Pearce, and Daniel Bailin (in the background) as Aleksander Vershinin, Fyodor Kulygin, and Nikolai Tuzenbakh (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 20th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: and Dec. 16th interview with director Vivienne Benesch, conducted by Byron Woods:; and Jan. 16th Raleigh, NC News & Observer profile of director Vivienne Benesch by David Menconi:

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THREE SISTERS at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20-22 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 Opening-Night Gala, 2 p.m. Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26-29, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30, 2 p.m. Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2-6, and 2 p.m. Feb. 7 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY,, or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529),, or



PRESENTER:,,,, and

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage):



NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an opening-night gala performance, followed by refreshments, on Saturday, Jan. 23rd.

NOTE 3: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26th.

NOTE 4: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31st, performances.

NOTE 5: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30th (for more information, click

NOTE 6: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussion — led by Raleigh psychiatrist Peter Buonaccorsi, MD — after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7th, performances.


Three Sisters (Tri sestry) (1901 domestic drama): (Encyclopædia Britannica) and (Wikipedia).

Anton Chekhov (Russian physician, playwright, and short story writer, 1860-1904): (Encyclopædia Britannica) and (Wikipedia).

Three Sisters (2011 translation): (Chekhov Plays).

Libby Appel (Santa Barbara, CA adapter): (Chekhov Plays), (Facebook page), and (Wikipedia).

Vivienne Benesch (director and PlayMakers Repertory Company producing artistic director): (PlayMakers Rep bio) and (Facebook page).


Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)



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