The political, social and cultural life of current day Russia gets a brutal and funny theatrical airing in Janusz Glowacki's The Fourth Sister, opening Nov. 21 at the Vineyard Theatre. The dark comedy, directed by Lisa Peterson, stars Jessica Hecht, Marin Hinkle and Alicia Goranson as three sisters searching for happiness in life beyond the mob-run, rebellion-laden, poverty-stricken streets of Moscow.
With a knowing wink at Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and the classic fairy tale Cinderella, the three Muscovite sisters dream of a life beyond post-Communist Russia with thoughts of freedom in the U.S. Daughters of an alcoholic old General, each woman has her own means of escape — Wiera (Hecht) through her nationalistic (and anti-Semitic) politician lover, Tania (Goranson) through her mob affiliated upstairs neighbor and Katia (Hinkle) through an American filmmaker making a documentary about Russian prostitutes.
For Hinkle's character, escape comes in "a connection in the form of love." "She feels more alive. She's very smart. She's a lawyer, but she doesn't get to practice. [Instead, Katia takes care of a circus tiger called Pepsi, from whom she regularly steals meat.] But when she's in love, she feels justified in liking herself. She's more excited to be loved than to go to America," she said.
Goranson's Tania, on the other hand, is happy enough to have the comforts provided by her mob lover (including a VCR and "Pretty Woman" on video), but would rather have the country than the man. "She's in love with America. We can laugh at that now some, depending where your stance is now. But she talks about America the way other countries think about America. And I think Tania embodies the good aspects of America - to have dreams, to get out of your circumstances and to make money," she said.
The women are still hopeful even as they struggle. Part of this, Hinkle believes, is the strength of the bond that exists between women, especially sisters. When Tania suffers a terrible blow, Wiera and Katia rally around her, despite earlier anger with the youngest and most naive of the trio. "We know we have to take care of each other. The only way to make it through is through the love and passion of our sisters," Hinkle said. The play also resonates with recent Russian events — there are several mentions of Chechnya, the Russian mob plays an important part in the action and the only politician represented is a half-Jewish man whose rhetoric is hate-speech against the Jews in favor of "pure" Russians. The results don't always sound funny, but they are.
"It's always that way with [Glowacki's] plays. When Fourth Sister was done in Eastern Europe, it was greeted with uproarious laughter like it was an incredibly funny sitcom. American audiences take it quite seriously — there are a lot of times I feel like I have such egg on my face. But it's a comedy of absurdity about these frustrating lives," Hinkle said.
Hinkle appeared in Glowacki's Cinders and in nearly every Chekhov (either professionally or in college, as in an Uncle Vanya which starred Proof's Ben Shankman as the title character) except Three Sisters. Her Broadway credits include The Tempest, Electra and A Thousand Clowns and she was recently featured (as a sister) on TV's "Once and Again." Goranson, a vet of TV's "Roseanne," also appeared in the films "How to Make an American Quilt" and "Boys Don't Cry." Her stage credits include The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek and Lydie Breeze. Hecht (Wiera) starred as Layla in Broadway's Last Night of Ballyhoo and in Off-Broadway's Stop Kiss, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told and Lobster Alice.
Also in the cast are Bill Buell (Urinetown, Titanic) as the General), Suzanne Shepard (Edie Falco's mother on "The Sopranos," "Requiem for a Dream") as Babushka, Lee Pace (The Credeaux Canvas) as the gangster Kostia, Jase Blankfort as the orphan boy Sonia, Daniel Oreskes as the politician Ivan and a Brighton Beach relative Yuri, Steven Ratazzi as the filmmaker John, Misza and Policeman and Louis Tucci as a Policeman and the accordion-playing Afghan veteran.
Designing the show are Rachel Hauck (sets), Mattie Ullrich (costumes), Kevin Adams (lighting) and Jill Duboff (sound). The original score is by Gina Leishman.
For ticket information, call (212) 353-0303. The Vineyard is located at 108 E. 15th Street. The Vineyard Theatre is on-line at http://www.vineyardtheatre.org.
— By Christine Ehren