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How to translate Chekhov? The problem of rendering the richly idiomatic works of the Russian playwright into contemporary English has plagued so many American and English attempts at staging Three Sisters. But with What We Know, the Shrunken Shakespeare Company has come up with an answer at once thrillingly novel and utterly faithful to the spirit of the original: Don’t.
Less an adaptation than a reimagining, What We Know is a devised piece that takes the unhappy, restless characters – and emotional beats – of Three Sisters and transplants them into something like the present day: Moscow now rendered vaguely as “the city” (with enough well-chosen details to hint at New York), the army officers all on their way to “the desert.”
When it works, it really works. At its best, What We Know has the kind of specificity and emotional control over its characters that so many productions of Three Sisters lack. When the characters sit around talking about life or absolutely nothing (as they so often do in both What We Know and Chekhov’s original), the scenes feel like character pieces first; the topics of their conversation – from how life will be in one hundred years to the meaning of existence – secondary to the emotional exchanges between them.
A whole subplot about the youngest and flightiest of the three sisters, Irina, teaching the local country doctor how to use social media, comes across as a genuinely clever way of bringing out both characters without ever feeling forced. And the highly-specific, hyper-contemporary nature of the dialogue, allows the three sisters and their various husbands and lovers the freedom to at once experience existential terror and comment wryly on it with ironic detachment (in one memorable sequence, Olga and her friend and sister’s lover, Vershinin, wonder “if we will ever see one another again” in affected Russian accents). Life, for the inhabitants of this unnamed suburb, may be fundamentally tragic: but these characters, too clever for their own good, are capable of seeing the funny side of their own despair.
The acting is universally outstanding: perhaps an unsurprising part of a rehearsal process that challenged the actors to essentially re-create each character from scratch. As Masha, the middle sister and the most openly unhappy of the three, Yvonne Cone is consistently enthralling to watch: her burgeoning, adulterous relationship with the officer Vershinin (Michael Moreno, wry and excellent) is handled with such delicacy that we can almost forget the presence of Masha’s hapless husband Theodore (Eric Chase, wisely balancing comedy with real pathos): perhaps the only genuinely good character in the piece. And Jennifer Allcott, as the responsible oldest sister Olga, brings quiet depth to a character whose choices, responsible by necessity, often leave her on the emotional sidelines as her sisters seize their rare chances at life.
At times, however, What We Know feels like it plays a little too safe with its source material. Almost beat-by-beat, the plot hews to the original (with the exception of the wise deletion of a few extraneous characters, and the conflation of two of Irina’s suitors): an unnecessary fidelity, especially when the changes work so well. Monologues like that of Dr. Roman – an alcoholic doctor prone to accidentally killing his patients – can at times feel like updatings of the original text, rather than fresh reinvention of the material. The decision to keep the class dynamics of the sisters’ town as a divide between educated, cultured “officers” and the “townies” they so despise seems slightly jarring when placed in a contemporary American context. And, every now and then, the dialogue can hit an awkward note (One of the characters pointing out that it’s just as well another didn’t rejoin the Marines, as his unit was being shipped out to the front lines, felt a little too on the nose.)
Overall, however, What We Know is a compelling response piece in its own right: one of the rare versions of Chekhov that doesn’t seem lost in its characters’ meandering speeches. It’s not Three Sisters, but it might be one of the best productions of that play I’ve ever seen.
What We Know continues through December 20 at the Access Theatre in TriBeCa
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.