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By Skyler Romero,

UCI Illuminations presented a performance of Acts I and II of Anton Chekhov’s play “Three Sisters,” beginning March 8 and running through March 11. These productions, directed by Professor of Acting Eli Simon, starred the UC Irvine MFA actors in a staging where, as promotional materials pointed out, “the focus is on the acting.”

“Three Sisters” tells the story of the titular siblings Olga (Meg Evans), Masha (Maya Smoot) and Irina (Crystal Kim). The play begins on Irina’s birthday, which also happens to be the anniversary of their father’s death, a coincidence that places a certain pallor over the proceedings. The sisters are joined in the festivities by their academic brother Andrei (Jalon Matthews) and his love interest Natasha (Lilian Wouters), Masha’s schoolteacher husband Kulygin (Nicholas Adams), as well as military officers Tuzenbach (Tristan Turner), Vershinin (Jesse Bourque) and Solyony (Nick Ehlen), as well as old family friend Chebutykin (Jawoine Hawkins) acting as a sort of surrogate patriarch. This opening act introduces the audience to the particular personalities of the sisters: Olga is the oldest and functions as the head of the house in the absence of the parents, Masha is the middle sister, melancholic and morbid as well as dissatisfied with her marriage and Irina is the youngest, full of idealism and optimism for the future. Irina appears to be in a cursory romantic relationship with Tuzenbach, while Masha, having lost all affection for her showboating husband, pines for Vershinin upon meeting him, an infatuation that he reciprocates. Andrei has high hopes for his academic pursuits as well as his relationship with Natasha, whose humble background makes her a bit of an outcast in the sisters’ more affluent family. The supporting cast is rounded out by Chebutykin, who held romantic feelings for the sisters’ late mother and continues to show them great affection. As the play progresses, complications arise from this tangle of relationships.

Simon’s staging of Chekhov’s play takes a minimalist approach to things like set design and costuming, placing greater focus instead on the actors’ performances. As the program for the production notes, “We focused on the acting challenges in this Chekhovian masterpiece: personalization, moment-to-moment specificity, listening and responding, given circumstances, the world of the play, objectives, actions, tactics, relationships and meaningful character choices. Everything else was less important and took a back seat.” In other words, the cast does the bulk of the dramatic heavy lifting here, and the UC Irvine MFA actors do not disappoint. As the three sisters, Evans, Smoot and Kim bring impressive authenticity to their roles. Evans conveys a palpable sense of world-weariness in her eldest sister, while Smoot handles the demands of Masha’s mercurial disposition with ease, and Kim delivers an adept portrayal of Irina’s youthful naivete, as well as the subsequent changes to her attitude as time goes on.

The performances of the supporting cast are equally impressive. Hawkins shines as the doting and grandfatherly Chebutykin, using speech and mannerisms to convey the character’s advanced age without the aid of stage makeup. As Natasha, Wouters humanizes a character who becomes more passively antagonistic toward the family as her status within it grows, and Matthews brings gravitas to Andrei’s creeping disillusionment with both his romance with Natasha and his own professional ambitions. Turner and Bourque portray their military officers with fitting genteelness while hinting at the insecurities lurking just beneath the surface, and Ehlen consistently nails the tone and timing of Solyony’s barbs and insults while also maintaining an air of vulnerability that comes into focus as the play goes on. Meanwhile, Adams delivers a likeable performance of a very unlikeable man, playing Kulygin’s oblivious pretentiousness for quality cringe comedy.

It’s a testament to the talents of this fine group of performers that they are able to tell a story that is alternately funny and heartbreaking using the bare minimum of set decoration, costume design and funding. To watch this production of “Three Sisters” is to understand the high quality of work being done with theater at UCI, and it’s a safe bet that these young actors are poised to go on to do great things.

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