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South Philly resident directs revamp of Chekhov play

Curio Theatre Company presents the American premiere of “Three Sisters, By RashDash, After Chekhov.”

South Philly resident Meg Trelease (right) directs Tessa Kuhn in the American premiere of “Three Sisters, By RashDash, After Chekhov” with Curio Theatre Company. Devised by United Kingdom troupe RashDash, the production is a 2018 musical revamp of the classic play “Three Sisters” by Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Evolving from 1900 rural Russia to 2019 Philadelphia, a central story of three women — and their searches for selfhood — has ventured westward on stages around the world.

While costumes and dialogues manifestly shifted during the cross-continent, multi-century trip, the themes of womanhood have gone unwavered.

Stemming from Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov’s classic “Three Sisters,” the Philadelphia-based Curio Theatre Company is tackling the American premiere of “Three Sisters, By RashDash, After Chekhov” — a 2018 musical revamp of the Russian play devised by United Kingdom troupe RashDash.

Last year’s version, which held runs in Manchester and London, reinvigorated Chekhov’s plot with 21st-ceutury female matters, but the devising artists from England left intentional leeways in their new text for other companies to infuse.

Under the direction of South Philly resident Meg Trelease, Curio Theatre Company, based at Calvary United Methodist Church, 801 S. 48th St., has spent the last few months filling cavities in the script with their own flairs, including composing original electronic synthesized tracks to pair with RashDash’s lyrics.

“We’ve had to, in many ways, recreate our own story,” she said. “…Rashdash really just uses ‘Three Sisters’ as a jumping-off point to ask a larger question about how can we, as women and feminists, can continue to do the work of dead white men.”

Billed as an electronic rock cabaret, this contemporary musical, which features seven songs and three female actors, deconstructs the Chekhov narrative that predominantly centers upon women’s dependence on men, including their dynamics with fathers and husbands.

For Curio, the production not only probes how females can continue performing classic plays with stereotypical roles, but unapologetically examines women’s experiences when men are not on stage — or are not a subject of discussion at all.

Although unfolding more than a century apart halfway around the world from one another, similarities surface among the women of these productions, as they’re all collectively grappling with alienation, confinement and individuality.

“I think there’s like a lot of modernity in this play, searching for an identity in a situation where they feel very isolated, which this sort of moment in time kind of shares with Chekhov,” Trelease said.

“That has to do with that lack of action that I think really connects the 2019 Philadelphia version with 1901 Russia is — these women are so trapped by all talk and no action,” added Tessa Kuhn, who plays Irina.

Of course, in staging the play in today’s day and age, changes were inevitable — even between RashDah and Curio, as the alterations encompassed more than tweaking the British twang.

Looking through a more contemporary lens, Curio’s approach to the show breaks apart from RashDash’s production in political and social senses, as the cast recognizes varying issues females face in the United States today in comparison to other countries.

“There were places that we had to find adjustments,” Kuhn said. “Because, there are different experiences and issues that I think women in 2018 are facing in England versus the states. And obviously, some of those experiences are the same, but we had to find our own.”

Musical composition is one way Curio unequivocally is making the show its own.

After getting their hands on RashDash’s script, Trelease, along with South Philly sound designer and composer Damien Figueras, were floored to find that the text didn’t include sheet music — just lyrics.

Immersing in the text while crafting new versions of the sisters, Trelease and Figueras felt the process evoked the pop rock sounds of 1990s songsters Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, leading to the show’s rock cabaret ingenuity.

“We can kind of tailorize where we see fit, which was helpful, because then it was like we had a basic structure that I know in some iteration works,” Figueras said. “So, it’s almost like a puzzle.”

Deepening its distinctiveness, the show’s set will — quite literally — mirror the development of these three characters.

As the show attempts to shatter female character stigmas of spinsters, wives and trollops, the backdrop evolves from a one-dimensional toy box to an intricate three-dimensional space.

“We talk about the one-dimensional roles that women are supposed to fit into…There’s never depth to those roles, especially in these classic plays,” Kuhn said. “So, that’s something that we really grapple with in ours — is finding more dimensions to these characters.”

In unraveling these female complexities, the show’s themes resonate beyond the stage and into the real world.

“We’re not offering a solution to this problem…we’re grappling with it through the show,” Trelease said. “And at the end of it, we’re saying, ‘This work continues.’ We need to keep striving. We need to keep working, because there are no answers. We’ve been grappling with this for years.”

Info:

“Three Sisters, By RashDash, After Chekhov” is showing at Calvary United Methodist Church, 801 S. 48th St.Previews will run Feb. 6 to 8. Opening Night is Feb. 9 Industry Night is Feb. 11 One Saturday matinee will be held Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. Closing is March 2. (All performances at 8 p.m.)

To purchase tickets, visit www.curiotheatre.org/three-sisters-by-rashdash-after-chekhov.html

On Feb. 1, Curio will perform a song from the new production at the Cherry Street Pier for Philly Theatre Week’s First Friday event, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m.

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