If Chekhov added more comedy and action, while subtracting the subtext-soaked dialogue, perhaps his plays may have a wider audience appeal.
Gateway Theatre’s artistic director emeritus Simon Johnston will soon find out as his play Sisters, directed by Sarah Rodgers and inspired by the Russian playwright’s Three Sisters, makes its world premiere at Gateway on Jan. 30.
“What attracted me to Chekhov’s beautifully written play was that at the core of the play is a sister-in-law slowly taking over the house, room by room, which I thought was a neat idea,” said Johnston, who began writing the play two years ago.
For his story, Johnston changed the location and time period, as well as, downsized the cast, making his version more inspired by Chekhov’s, rather than adapted from it.
Instead of early 20th century Russia, Johnston sets his play in a civil war-torn China in 1936.
After the passing of their father General Protopov who relocated the family to China, two sisters Irena (Luisa Jojic) and Masha (Sarah Louise Turner) share a house with their brother’s wife, Natasha (Josette Jorge), who is from the Chinese village and use to be a servant.
Ripe with tension, the two sisters’ ideas clash with Natasha’s. At the same time, one sister is wooed by the charming Captain Wong (John Ng), who is in fact promised to the other sister.
In the meantime, Natasha discovers some family secrets to her advantage and when disaster hits, she’s poised to win a conflict of “epic proportions.”
When writing the play, Johnston sought inspiration not from 1936 China, but from contemporary Canada.
“It’s about the rise of China,” he said. “I was thinking about Richmond and Canada, how we have new Canadians in our community and how older Canadians feel about the change in demographics.”
To this end, themes covered in Sisters should resonate with contemporary audiences, and will hopefully urge them to become more active in their own lives, according to Johnston.
“I hope people recognize the themes and realize there’s no right or wrong, but things can be explored from a different viewpoint,” he said.
“I want people to make the political more personal. People tend to be polite politically, but I want to see people get involved in politics more personally.”
Even though Sisters touches upon current issues, Johnston admitted he still found it challenging writing about a time period and an event few Canadians know about today.
He sought to strike a balance between educating and engaging his audience.
“It’s something new and different, some foreign history onto our shores.”
Sisters has been workshopped at Stratford and in Factory Theatre in Toronto, but has yet to make its debut on a main stage.
Tickets are $47 for adults/seniors ($48 on Fridays and Saturdays) and $30 for students. The show begins at 8 p.m. at Gateway Theatre’s Main Stage, 6500 Gilbert Rd.
For more information, call 604-270-1812 or visit www.gatewaytheatre.com/whatsonm3.html.