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‘Three Sisters’ at Secret Theatre boils over with intensity

“What is going on here?” the writer wondered as she was seated in the audience for the Queens Players’ fierce production of “Three Sisters” at the Secret Theatre. “Does no one in Queens like Chekov?” For there were only two people at that evening’s performance, me and another chap who I believe was an actor. Despite this —- and audiences for Secret Theatre productions have shown up in all manner of weather and even when the subway wasn’t running — the cast still did their best work.

One might remember the play as being about three sisters stuck in the Russian boondocks and yearning to go to Moscow. It is about that and much more. It’s a story of utter frustration, of dreams deferred and demolished, of suffering so terrible most of the characters can’t even bear to acknowledge it.

The story begins on youngest sister Irina’s name day, which is also the one year anniversary of their father’s death. She’s dressed in white, fresh-faced and optimistic. Masha, the middle sister, sits on the floor, reading a book with furrowed brow — now and again she whistles, to be gently admonished by eldest sister Olga. Olga’s the matriarch, the soon to be headmistress of a girls’ school and the one who’s holding it all together since the death of their father, even though she’s only 28. And her ability to hold everything together will be majorly tested throughout the course of Chekov’s sad and angry masterpiece.

The rest of the guests start arriving, with their own baggage. There’s Chebutikin, a laid-back existentialist before existentialism was invented, who at least brings Irina the extravagant gift of a samovar. There’s Tuzenbach, the count who’s been in love with Irina for years, and extols the concept of work though he’s never done a stitch of it in his life. There’s Kulygin, Masha’s pompous, pathetic and put-upon husband. There’s Soleni, a bitter little jackal of a man, and the perpetually cheerful Fedotik.

The girls have a brother, Andrey, a stuck-up dunderhead who probably knows he’s a stuck-up dunderhead. Andrey has a girlfriend, Natasha, who blubbers because she thinks the sisters are making fun of her sash — if only. At the end of Act One Andrey, the foolish mortal, asks her to marry him.

Rounding out the motley ensemble are Anfisa, the elderly serving woman, whom Olga treats with maternal tenderness, and Ferapont the half-deaf messenger. And then there’s Vershinin, a soldier, with two daughters and a wife who regularly attempts suicide to annoy him. He and Masha fall for each other, and it matters not to her that her husband knows.

Things get worse.

The performances and Alberto Bonilla’s direction are fantastic. Sarah Bonner at first plays Irina with a sweet freshness that reminds one of Natalie Portman at her best. Her descent into bitterness and disillusionment reminded me of Langston Hughes’ words about a dream deferred, “crust and sugar over/like a syrupy sweet.” The last act finds her almost recovered — until what happens happens.

Briana Packen’s Masha is scary good, simply ferocious.

“I’m boiling!” she screams. You believe her.

Susan Quinn’s Olga is the pillar because she understands she must be. Part of her strength comes from simply not believing what she doesn’t want to believe.

“I am not listening, whatever you say! Whatever nonsense you talk, I have no intention of listening!” she says when Masha tries to tell her she loves Vershinin.

Susan C. Merenda at first plays Natasha with a girlish awkwardness that reminded me of a young Eleanor Roosevelt. As the play goes on she becomes monstrous. Her insistence on getting rid of Anfisa because she’s old and feeble is disgusting. Even the cuckolded Andrey admits that sometimes his wife can be a “mean, blind, rough-coated sort of beast.” Indeed.

The other actors — Daniel Smith as Andrey, Frank Van Putten as Kuligin, Vincent Ingrisano as Vershinin, Noel Macduffie as Soleni, Peter Guarraci as Chebutikin, Troy Gochenour as Fedotik, Michael Broadhurst as Tuzenbach, Charles Baker as Ferapont and Katherine Mylenki as Anfisa — also sink their claws into one another and don’t let go.

Kudos also for the crew, especially Shelleen Kostabi’s costume and styling, Richard Mazda’s sound, and Noel MacDuff’s lighting, which makes the stage look like it’s in a cave.

It is shameful that only two people were in the audience that night. Everyone should go and see The Secret Theatre’s production of “Three Sisters.”

If You Go

Three Sisters

When: Remaining dates March 24-26, 8 p.m.

Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., LIC

Cost: $18

Contact: 718 392 0722

Website: secrettheatre.com, thequeensplayers.com

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