What We Know: An American Retelling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters

by Sergei Burbank · December 9, 2014

what we know

Cast photo

Theater is an iterative art, and its continued existence is wholly dependent upon its ability to be passed on as a tradition: told and retold, and altered in the re-telling. Every generation tackles the enduring works left behind by its predecessors, and only through exploration, immersion, and adaptation can the new generation leave its stamp, its body of work, and its enduring items to be bestowed upon the next. Shrunken Shakespeare Company’s effort and ambition is to be lauded in tackling a giant work and breaking it down to its component parts. It is an effort towards understanding a work that approaches genuine depths, bolstered top to bottom by effective performances from an ensemble cast that gamely tackles the task at hand. I suspect that in stripping down the piece to its bare essence, much has been removed that would have better served the work staying in.

Shrunken Shakespeare Company’s What We Know takes the plot of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and places it in a contemporary setting: characters habitually check their smartphones and text each other news; in one of Irina’s attempts at relevance, she imagines becoming a social media director; the military is still there, but -- in a nod to the past decade of America’s adventures in the Middle East -- deployment means heading somewhere “out in the desert.”

While the plot’s details -- and the means of their delivery -- have been altered, much remains the same. At the center of the plot sit Olga (Jennifer Allcott), Masha (Yvonne Cone), and Irina (Sara Dobrinich), three siblings whiling the summer days in their late parents’ country estate. Their brother, Andy, (Matthew MacNelly) courts and weds local girl Natasha (Jennifer Martina), about whom his siblings can barely conceal their contempt.

Theodore (Eric Chase), Masha’s pedantic schoolmaster husband, Nick (Kelsey Kurz), Irina’s indefatigable suitor, and Dr. Roman (Robert Davenport), an old family friend, round out the incumbents. The arrival of an army officer and old family acquaintance, Alex Vershinin (Michael Moreno), upends this bored routine, and begins the slide of power from the incumbents to the newcomers, with Natasha triumphantly claiming the family home for herself, her children, and her lover -- and Andy, if he insists on sticking around.

To reveal these plot points is not to spoil the evening, not least because the original play is more than a century old, but also because the plot is beside the point. That the sisters lose the house -- that there is a house to be lost -- isn’t important. The play unfolds as a series of scenes that exist in isolation; the tension does not build, the blocking does not inform the relationships, which are not informed by design. The emphasis of the production is the emotional reality of the performances; presented in the Access Theater Gallery, the cast makes good use of found, mismatched furniture and mimed objects to create their playing space. The stark space is used well, as the barrenness by the show’s close (their eviction) is not merely implied, but viscerally felt. The truth of the experience is intended to emerge through the ensemble’s craft.

The key twist of this production is that Chekhov’s situations are repurposed without his words, as the characters speak with lines devised by the ensemble. The subtitle of the piece is “An American Retelling,” and that verb is operative throughout. This is an approximation of Three Sisters, where monologues are replaced by summarizing placeholders -- much like the ones actors use immediately after going off-book in order to capture the gist of a speech while propelling a scene to its next beat. But whereas such a placeholder is a blunt but necessary rehearsal instrument, the performance consists of nothing but these approximations.

In place of the original’s poetry, we are left to refocus on the immediacy of the characters, of their relationships with each other. Stripped of the original’s richness, we lose a sense of place, of grounding -- and there is little of what has been added that makes it uniquely “American.” The reality of Masha’s despondency is undeniable, as is the sisters’ disdain of Natasha. But of the wider world of the play there is little that ties it to a specific locale, American or otherwise: the decimating fire of the original is still there, but without the catalog of what was lost. The cast comes together for beautiful incidental music accompanied on guitar, but the inclusion of contemporary pop-folk music is not an American twist. (As Chekhov was deeply aware, Russians have their folk music, too.) It seems that perhaps the confusion arises in placing the piece in a contemporary setting, confusing technological innovations as uniquely American ones.

There are innumerable locations in this country -- particularly in the South -- torn between modernity and old traditions, where military bases wrangle for local supremacy with the ivory towers of elite higher learning. Any number of Gulf Coast cities (New Orleans, Beaumont, Galveston), Southern Atlantic ones (Savannah, Charleston?) , or some conflated proxy could have provided the rich context in which this high-born family could plausibly languish. (And then to mix some brown faces into that cast -- in such a context, goodness, what could be more American than that?) Such a retelling -- one grounded in details undisputably American, not merely modern -- would be an intriguing pursuit.

This is a cast that rose gamely to a challenge, and sustained a performance with their comeliness, their vigor, and their heart. While it is startling to say such a thing that used Chekhov as its source, one wishes they had been given more juicy fare to work with.






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