Found in Translation

Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets a new reading for Yale Rep production

Lucile Bruce

Wendy Rich Stetson stars as Olga in Chekhov's "Three Sisters". Photo by Keven Berne

In 1899, Anton Chekhov – Russian playwright, fiction writer, and physician – wrote in a letter to a theater colleague, “I am not writing a play. I have a subject: three sisters.”

Fortunately, subjects evolve. Chekhov’s “three sisters” – the characters Olga, Masha, and Irina – became the center of his next-to-last play and one of the most famous in the history of Western theater. Three Sisters premiered in Moscow at the Moscow Art Theater in 1901 and has since been translated numerous times and produced on stages throughout the world.

This September, Three Sisters opens at the Yale Repertory Theatre in a new translation by American playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl. Photo by Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy

“The play has a profound understanding of human behavior,” reflects director Les Waters. “It’s an extraordinary look at what it means to desperately want something.”

In the play, the sisters, transplanted to a provincial Russian town, long to return to Moscow where they grew up. Their parents have died. In the course of the drama, the sisters struggle as their lives move in directions that seem to undermine their hopes, dreams, and better selves.

“Three Sisters are already finished,” Chekhov wrote in 1900, “but their future – their immediate future, at least – is veiled from me by the murk of uncertainty.”

Or, as Sarah Ruhl wrote to me in an e-mail, “… in Three Sisters Chekhov takes on nothing more and nothing less than the problem of being human and what to do with the awful expanse of time stretching out before us.”

The production at Yale Repertory Theatre, far from being mired in the murk of uncertainty, is a testament to decisive action. A co-production of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California, and the Yale Rep in New Haven, it evolved after Ruhl’s translation premiered in 2009 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park.

 

Les Waters. Photo by Rebecca Martinez

 

The Yale Rep and Berkeley Rep are no strangers to each other. To date, they have collaborated on productions for seven seasons. Ruhl’s version of Chekhov’s play had not been seen on the East or West Coast. The two theaters recognized an opportunity to support Ruhl’s work and reunite her with Waters, associate artistic director at Berkeley Rep, to mount a new production of Chekhov’s play.

Waters had previously directed plays by Sarah Ruhl, including Eurydice at the Berkeley Rep/Yale Rep and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at Berkeley Rep and on Broadway.

With Three Sisters, he laughs, “I got to work with two of my favorite writers simultaneously. It’s not a bad job.”

According to James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep, this was also an opportunity for both theaters to take on a work of “significant scale.” Three Sisters has a cast of 14 actors, many of whom have performed at the Yale Rep before. The production premiered at the Berkeley Rep in April 2011.

Over the last few decades, co-productions have become increasingly common in the theater world. The way it works is: The two theaters agree on a director, designers, and actors. The theaters schedule their runs as close together as possible, or with a meaningful separation of time so that the actors can work between runs.

In general, explains Bundy, the theaters split the costs of physical production – set-building, costume construction, etc., – and rehearsal time. Beyond that, each is responsible for its own costs including technical rehearsal time, marketing, and publicity. Co-productions bring more creative minds to the table. They make business sense, too. At a time when financial resources for the arts are scarce, co-productions enable theaters to share expenses and do more with the money they have.

There’s an old adage that 80 percent of directing is casting, says Bundy, and he and Waters agree that the Three Sisters cast is strong.

“People were very responsive and responsible to the text,” says Waters. The play, he notes, requires “real emotional bravery.”

Left to right, Natalia Payne, Heather Wood, Wendy Rich Stetson star. Photo by Kevin Berne

For actors, Chekhov is a benchmark. Through his plays – along with those of his Norwegian contemporary Henrik Ibsen – actors develop an understanding of character and action.

“Chekhov’s plays have very complicated sets of circumstances,” Bundy notes. “They are central to what acting is in Western culture.”

In writing her version of Three Sisters, Ruhl worked from a literal Russian translation by writer/director/dramaturg Elise Thoron. Ruhl’s biggest challenge, she believes, was “not knowing Russian.” She spent long hours with Thoron, listening as Thoron read the Russian aloud and explained how different characters speak – the “rolling, lyrical rhythm” of the philosophical Vershinin and the “clipped choppy sound” of Tuzenbach the army lieutenant.

As he prepared to direct the play, Waters didn’t refer to other translations. He wanted to concentrate on Ruhl’s version.

“I did a lot of reading,” says Waters, a self-described “research freak.” He read books about grief. He read biographies of Chekhov. He read Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag and Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm. And he read Chekhov.

“Because I work in the theater, I kept concentrating on Chekhov’s plays,” Waters recalls, “but friends who are writers kept telling me to read his stories.”

When he finally did, he was astounded by their depth and quality.

“Sometimes I watch Chekhov productions and I think it’s all a bit grand,” he says. “When I’ve seen this play in the past I’ve often wondered, who are these three sisters? I wanted to give a sense that they’re ordinary people with ordinary backgrounds. I wanted it to feel ordinary, not grand.

“What really surprised me is how the play is constructed,” Waters reflects. “The architecture is so hidden. Often you can see how a play is constructed, but this one often surprises you.”

With English translations too numerous to name, why do we need a new Three Sisters? “Because,” says Bundy, “the way language hits the ears of an audience 50 years ago is different from the way language hits the ears of a contemporary audience.

“You might ask,” he continues, “why not just anoint a Chekhov translator every 25 or 50 years? Because different writers bring different sensibilities to the plays. These are great works of art, revealed differently by different writers.”

Ruhl, Bundy says, “has taken the natural simplicity of Chekhov’s language and made it very accessible. She has found an urgency, warmth, and friction that is inherent to Chekhov but can easily be lost in translation.”

“Its mood, I am told, is gloomier than gloom,” wrote Chekhov in November 1900, two months before Three Sisters premiered.

And to actress Olga Knipper, who played Masha: “People who carry grief in their hearts a long time and are used to it only whistle and often sink into thought. So you may often be thoughtful on the stage during conversations.”

“People have the expectation that Chekhov is going to be sad all the time,” says Bundy. He seems to be speaking to Chekhov across 110 years of theater history.

Yet this production, he says, is funny.

“We’re so used to having our genres defined for us by the market machine of TV,” Bundy continues. “We forget that really great art tries to comprehend the complexity of life, and that’s both funny and sad.

“Chekhov is one of the few people able to combine light and dark in ways that are inescapably haunting and worth returning to.”

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