Arts and Entertainment | Theater

Serban plays at Riverside Theatre balance heavy philosophical themes

A sign greets audiences entering Riverside theatre, reading: “There will be gunshots in this evening’s performance of ‘Three Sisters,’” and gunshots there are.

Renowned director Andrei Serban presents both “Three Sisters” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost” with a modern and confrontational twist. Both plays’ energy and ambition tiptoe the line between vigor and mania and can become overwhelming or exhausting. Nonetheless, the strong acting performances and bold, iconoclastic interpretation of old tropes keep the audience interested.

The plays’ opening night was Thursday, November 11th, and they will continue to run at Riverside Theatre through this weekend. These two plays are actor thesis projects through the Columbia Stages program. Thus, the cast is composed of students in the Theatre Arts program at the Columbia School of the Arts. Columbia Stages provides a valuable opportunity for students to create and perform theater productions on campus. “Three Sisters” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost” epitomize the capabilities and mission of this program.

“Three Sisters” grapples with the discomfort, and even hysteria, which can emerge from disappointment and disillusionment. Similarly profound, “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” is an oft-overlooked Shakespeare play dealing chiefly with the pursuit of love and the process of challenging rules or mores in search of one’s identity.

Serban links these two plays through their common mission to reveal the simultaneously profound and absurd nature of human existence. Rejecting a pedantic tone, they successfully embrace nuance, forcing the audience to participate and think for themselves.

In his interpretation of both plays, Serban raises weighty philosophical issues. He attempts to counterbalance this with flippancy, comedy, and absurdist sequences. There are frequent, abrupt transitions between emotions in “Three Sisters,” especially. Similarly, Serban’s interpretation of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” exaggerates Shakespeare’s marriage of the crass and lofty.

A provocative and engaging result often stems from this attempted balance between comedy, absurdity, and gravity. However, it also cultivates a frenetic energy, which can be overwhelming and disorienting at times. At these times, the mission of these plays can begin to feel over-ambitious.

In “Three Sisters,” the actors switch roles throughout the course of the play. Thus, Serban’s adaptation masterfully emphasizes Chekhov’s rejection of purely
loathsome or sympathetic characters by highlighting the nuance of identity. This role swapping also places further demands on the attention of the audience.

Of course, the director demands much more of the actors as they swap roles, and the entire cast is up to the challenge; they display quite a range of raw emotion. Their characters always seem posed near the edge of some threshold, and the acting in “Three Sisters,” especially, demands and delivers dramatic shows of passion and desperation.

These two plays ask a lot of the audience, and they attempt to accomplish an incredible amount. Luckily, the actors deliver beautifully convincing and probably completely exhausting performances. Thus, the vision of their director shines through the performers’ work.

“We wanted to approach it as if it had never been done before,” assistant director James Rutherford said.

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