HuffPo Review: Steppenwolf’s ‘Three Sisters’ Is Heavy-Handed Drama With Slight Emotional Weight



The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Three Sisters,” now playing through August 26.

What is it about Steppenwolf’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (Here, simply called Three Sisters) that left me mostly cold?

Was it Tracy Letts’ vaguely contemporary new adaptation of the 1901 play that required one of its key actors to utter the phrase “F*ck off?” Was it the disjointed ensemble acting that felt as if various cast members were performing in at least three different productions? Or was it simply the over-anticipation of seeing what the power duo Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro could muster, who previously gave us the earth-shattering August: Osage County?

I’ve no doubt it’s a bit of all of the above. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

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15 Comments

  1. What a shame.

  2. Saw and enjoyed THREE SISTERS. But who translated the play? No one. Letts says he consulted a “literal translation” in an old textbook for starters and later “combed through all the translations I could find.” Am I the only one who sees that as a scam? At the very least shouldn’t the translators who got “combed” be credited? Don’t they deserve credit for mastering both English and Russian? Isn’t not doing so rather like lavishing praise on the window-washers at Guggenheim Bilbao but giving no credit to Frank Gehry?

    One man’s opinion? Translation is art. Adaptation is non-art. Art is difficult; non-art is easy. At best adaptation is a shell game without a pea; at worst it is theft. You steal the meat from real translators, toss out the bits your audience can’t stomach, mix it up in a Dutch oven, sprinkle in some zesty American vernacular, cook covered for 60 minutes – voila, you have an adaptation.

    Chekhov has been translated well by no less a playwright than Michael Frayn who, you know, speaks and reads Russian. If Steppenwolf doesn’t have the money to go with a first-class “translation” rather than a fifth-rate “adaptation,” who does?

  3. Another adaptation of Chekov by a non-Russian speaker, American playwright Annie Baker, has recently received glowing reviews in New York (Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep). Evidently some people (including producers/artistic directors) believe that a writer with a gift for American vernacular can shine a light on a play whose previous translations have become dated.

  4. Very interesting argument, Joe. The word “adaptation” can mean many things. I tend to agree with Diane that adaptation can be art, especially when one has a way with language like Letts. But that’s not to say I liked this adaptation.

    Also, to your point, Joe, the danger with adaptation without going back to the source text in the original language is it can become sort of like a telephone game — the original meaning and intent is lost through various interpretations. Who’s to say that down the road another playwright will create another adaptation, and will turn to Letts’ version as a source of inspiration?

  5. I think you make an interesting point Joe, but it’s not an original thought. Art is always changing and “adapting” so to call an adaptation of an original “non art” and “stealing” isn’t necessarily true. We know there is an original work, and we also know who created it, that’s why it’s called an adaptation.

  6. With all respect, Diane, “adaptation” pretending to be “translation” is a racket designed to save theaters money by skirting copyright. This is how to do it right:

    http://www.stcatz.ox.ac.uk/news/2010/mar/michael-frayn-discussion-translating-chekhov

  7. I saw this production and loved it. Chekhov said that no one understood the comedy in his plays. Letts and Shapiro certainly did that . If you know this play at all , I can’t see how you could say it seemed as though the sisters were not in the same production. They are always, no matter, drowning in their own boredom. Their only real connection is their false hope of ‘getting to Moscow’ and the memory of their father. As per translation & adaptation. I believe it is true that it should be listed as an adaptation from the translation by….But if adaptation is not an art , then theatre , a collaborative art, is in trouble. The Russian mentality and the Westerner’s misunderstanding of that is often the problem in productions I have seen in the past. Very often- no humor at all. Without productions like these theatre remains in the danger of becoming a dying art.

  8. Heard it here first: art is always “changing” and Shakespeare has become “dated” so Tracy Letts is “adapting” HAMLET: “Should I whack myself or not? Beats the crapola out of me, bro.”

    Vladimir Nabokov’s classic slapdown of Edmund Wilson nearly 50 years ago, though dealing with a poetic rather than a dramatic work, is somewhat relevant to this topic:

    http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter-1966feb-00080

    Nuff said.

  9. Adaptation is not an art? I’ll tell that to the folks at Lifeline. And the Jeff Committee’s “Best New Adaptation” category. And the authors of West Side Story. And the Performance Studies department at Northwestern. And anyone who’s ever written a film version of a novel or a play.

    I can’t speak to the success of this version, as I haven’t seen it. And perhaps an argument should be made that more credit should be given to the literal translation(s) from which Letts drew. But attacking the art of adaptation, in all its facets and complexities, as “easy” and “non-art”? Be serious.

  10. As opposed to an effort to avoid copywright costs, I assumed the use of “hip” adaptors was a way to get a new audience in to see classic dramas in translation.

  11. Focus, Zev, focus: this is about THE ART OF TRANSLATION and not about adapting a novel, film, TV show, cartoon, or any other work from a different medium for the stage. I feel you’re trying to work out some ancient teenage frustration and anger. Perhaps for being cast as Bernardo instead of Riff in your high school production of “West Side Story.” Zev, you were not then and you will never be “Jet material.” You’re a born Shark. Be cool. Somewhere. Tonight.

  12. As this interview with Letts reveals, the adaptation wasn’t commisioned by Steppenwolf orginally, and he says he will never do another adaptation. http://timeoutchicago.com/arts-culture/theater/15469626/tracy-letts-adapts-chekhov%E2%80%99s-three-sisters

    • Thanks for the link, Diane! Great find.

  13. Joe, I’d be insulted if I had the slightest idea what you were talking about. As it is, I’ll settle for bafflement. So, good work?

    Oy.

  14. “Oy?” Translate, please.


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