Adapting Chekhov, 'Soldiers' is a play fighting with itself

Special to the Tribune

"Three Soldiers (for Sisters)"


Aaron Sawyer folds, spindles and mutilates Chekhov for the age of perpetual warfare in "Three Soldiers (for Sisters)" with Red Theater, with results that range from near-brilliant to borderline cringeworthy. One suspects that this whiplash reaction would be lessened if playwright Sawyer hadn't also taken on the role of director, and if he had found a stronger cast across the board to negotiate the many shifts in tone contained within his ambitious script.

Still, even in this under-realized form, Sawyer's premise finds some jolting moments of connection. Here, the three Prosorov sisters are stuck in a military base on Djibouti on the Horn of Africa during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Due to vague issues of inheritance, they can't go home to Omaha. (The failure to fully explain why they can't leave their tinderbox environment is a major drawback.)

But unlike Chekhov's trio, for whom we can often feel sympathy in their straitened circumstances, the women here are a querulous bunch who, with the exception of youngest sister Irna (Sarah Liken), don't bother to learn enough Arabic to even pronounce their housemaid's name correctly, preferring to refer to her as "Turd." Their feckless brother, Andrew, (Evan Sawdey) fancies himself a shrewd online investor, while sister-in-law Natasha (Erin O'Connor) is — well, actually, about the same heartless shrew as always.

The soldiers who woo them, on the other hand, tend to come into sharper focus. Sully (Mickey O'Sullivan), the contemporary stand-in for trigger-happy Solyony of the original, makes his designs upon Irina far more obvious, and also hopes that the fortune he's reaping through private-contractor military work will win her over. Petro (Johnard Washington), who woos married sister Maria (Meredith Ernst), suffers an escalating series of disabilities and ends up caring for senior officer Alex (Jim Poole), who apparently was a partner in torture with the Prosorovs' dead father and still moons over their dead mother

Most intriguing — especially in Victoria Alvarez-Chacon's precise but never self-conscious performance — is Cookie, who also loves Irina, wants to start a restaurant in Djibouti, and transitions from female to male via hormone treatments after joining Sully in the high-risk, high-profit and high-corruption world of private security. On paper, this character seems like one designed to check every box on the diversity roll call, but Cookie turns out to be the most nuanced and fully realized character onstage.

The ridiculousness of the self-absorbed American civilians in the war zone comes through clearly, as I suspect is Sawyer's aim. But once he's set his shooting targets up, so to speak, there isn't much room for them to do anything but fill out the contemporary versions of the three sisters' disappointments, which makes the nearly 21/2 hours running time drag in places.

Gage Wallace delivers a series of direct addresses to the audience as he embodies several characters, including Turd, an abusive former commanding officer of Sully's, a luckless soldier and a terrorist. Though Sawyer has these characters describe themselves sardonically — "Hello, I am a generic soldier" — he hasn't fully solved the problem of reducing them to stereotypes while scolding us for viewing them as such.

But despite some real reservations, I found myself turning over several moments in my head afterward. Unlike some other contemporized versions of Chekhov I've seen, at least Sawyer has the guts to bring the sisters — and soldiers — off the pedestal and cover them with gritty blood-drenched sand.

Through March 23, Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $20 at 773-733-0540 or

"Rites and Sacrifices"


Another re-imagining of a classic takes the stage just up Milwaukee Avenue in Jennifer L. Mickelson's "Rites and Sacrifices" with Idle Muse Theatre Company. Using Euripides' "The Suppliant Women" as its starting point, Mickelson's piece, directed by Evan Jackson, casts Athenian King Theseus as a neutral party drawn into war with Thebes when the latter's leaders refuse to return the bodies of the soldiers of Argos who invaded Thebes. (The original dispute involved a sibling power struggle between Polyneices and Eteocles.)

Here, Theseus (Joshua Volkers) proclaims the virtues of democracy to waspish Theban diplomat/autocrat Panos (Joel Thompson), while Theseus' chain-smoking war photographer mother, Aithra, (Laura Jones Macknin) provides the gruesome images fanning the flames.

Sure, we still recoil in horror at beheadings and other desecrations of corpses in our own age of war. But the play lacks geographic and cultural specificity, which means we don't get a lot more out of it than the original offers, despite onstage cell phones and video screens with "breaking news" text. The quartet of mourning Argive women deliver some heart-rending lamentations. But their neither-here-nor-there loosely layered garments (Grecian? Balkan? It's not clear), in contrast to hard-charging Aithra's blue jeans, encapsulates the frustratingly vague context in which Mickelson attempts to refashion Euripides' tale.

Through March 23, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $20 at 773-340-9438 or

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