Backtalk: A Conversation about Steppenwolf’s ‘Three Sisters’
From left: Usman Ally, Caroline Neff, Ora Jones, and Carrie Coon in Steppenwolf's production of Three Sisters
In the playbill for Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Three Sisters, ensemble member Tracy Letts, who adapted the Anton Chekhov play to the Chicago stage, admits he doesn’t much like Chekhov. "I’m normally left pretty cold by [watching his plays]," Letts says. "So my guiding principle going into it was, I’m going to try to eliminate for the audience any further act of translation; they’re going to have direct communication with the ideas and the characters."
That principle worked—to a degree. While ditching the Russian jargon was a smart move, our two editors—casual theatre fans who saw the show on different nights—thought the characters still had trouble connecting to the audience until the very end. Here, Emmet Sullivan and Elly Fishman recap their separate viewings and what they thought of the new translation.
Three Sisters plays until August 26 at Steppenwolf Theatre. For info, go to Steppenwolf.org.
Emmet: I finally saw Three Sisters last night.
Elly: So what'd you think?
Emmet: Gotta be honest, I was kind of disappointed.
Elly: Yea, I felt the same way. I remember reading Chekov in college and absolutely loving his work. He captures a certain human richness that is really special (and often grueling)
Emmet: I agree, and I've liked his writing
Elly: But it seemed kind of one-tone in this production. The nuances were lost.
Emmet: A friend of mine that I saw it with made the point that the actors were so quick to get to the next wry comment that they skipped over some of the emotion in a line. Also, not to blame the audience too much, but I had a woman sitting behind me who had that laugh that was really just making sure everyone around her knew she understood the joke. That was a bit distracting. What did you like most about it—if anything?
Elly: Well, I like Yasen Peyankov as Kulygin. As always, he was wonderful. His character is so sad though—Masha is so terrible to him! I also like Carrie Coon as Masha.
Emmet: They're all so terrible to each other.
Elly: She's got the dark, brood down.
Emmet: I did like Carrie. She seemed the most realized of the three.
Elly: My problem is that Chekovian world is based on dialog, and the dialog just didn't work. It felt stilted, and there wasn't really any poetry in the language.
Emmet: This is the first Chekhov play I've actually seen. I've only ever read him, and, at least in this instance, I prefer reading. I was so annoyed by the whining of it all. And the constant disgust they had with the people around them. I didn't actually feel bad for the characters until the very end, when [SPOILER ALERT] they broke down about their unrealized dreams. Up until that point, they were just obnoxious.
Elly: Yeah, and each one is an archtype female in the most extreme. And you just see them harping on the same thing over and over again—and yet never moving or going anywhere
Emmet: They really enjoyed harping. It seemed toward the end, when they were remarking on how pitiful they found everyone around them, that they secretly loved being out of Moscow. Here they imagined themselves as the most intelligent people in town with the grandest lives. They complain about doing a single day of work. Moscow would have been an actual challenge to all of them.
Elly: Right, they like the idea of challenge and "work" but actually would rather stay put. There's some desirable about constant longing because if you claim that your happiness lies somewhere else—somewhere unreachable—you give yourself an interminable excuse to behave badly.
Emmet: And they do behave badly, whether it's active, like Masha cheating on her husband, or even passive, like how Olga and Irina allow Natasha to be so cruel. Natasha seems to be the happiest one throughout the show.
Elly: In a really twisted way.
Emmet: Very twisted. There were four major moments in the show: the birthday party, the late night a year later, the burning of the city, and finally the sending off of the military. Did any of them strike you as notably stronger or weaker than the other parts?
Elly: Hmm good question. Well, let's see, the party was basically the exposition, right? We're introduced to the characters, what they're about.
Emmet: Yes, that was my favorite scene. The exposition worked well for me, introducing them two at a time.
Elly: The late-night scene was the only time Masha was lively. It's really where the changes happen that set up the unraveling of everything for the rest of the play. The affairs are revealed, the gambling, love confessions etc.
Emmet: Natasha's true character
Emmet: and Andrey's
Elly: But it didn't quite come together. The stakes weren't presented in a compelling way.
Emmet: I think a lot of that had to do with the lack of compassion for the characters. Already these are three wealthy, well-educated women who are being courted by the best men in town, and all they do is complain about their lives. It's hard to care about that type of character, and the actors didn't sell it enough for me.
Elly: Right. You want to at least have one character to root for.
Emmet: I cheered for the nanny!
Elly: True. I mean this what Tracy Letts does, though. He's the master of tormented family dramas. With unbearably selfish characters. But what worked in August: Osage County was the drama and the tensions and the dark humor. This production really didn't have any of that.
Emmet: Letts said he had a problem with the translation, that once you change it from the original Russian, you abandon language and end up with just the ideas. Do you think that played into our disappointment with it? Or is this just Letts letting himself off the hook for any bad reviews?
Elly: I though that interview with him was hilarious. It was basically like, "Well, this kind of sucked." haha
Emmet: For instance, when he watches Chekhov, "I check out early and often. And I'm not supposed to check out; I'm supposed to be completely engaged... I'm normally left pretty cold by it." I still feel that way, even if he changed "name day" to birthday and had a few of the male actors shave.
Elly: Yeah, he didn't have me at the edge of my seat. In fact, the people next to us left at intermission.
Emmet: Same with my showing. Our audience dwindled by act three, and two people even got up going into act four. I'm always shocked when people do that. It's one thing to check out during intermission, but while people are on stage? It must be so tough to maintain that energy while seeing people walk out on you.
Elly: Yeah, night after night.
Emmet: We're about to see a lot of Alana Arenas.
Elly: I know! Three shows in a season. I’m still on the fence about her. I've seen her in a few things. She often uses the same cadences in her dialogue—no matter the time period, content, etc. It's kind of hit or miss.
Emmet: That's interesting. This is my first time seeing her, but obviously not my last. How do you think she did with the role of Natasha?
Elly: It was a pretty volatile interpretation, with bursts coming out of nowhere. I felt like I didn't hate her as much as I should.
Emmet: I didn't, either.
Elly: That character needs to be truly brutal in order to understand that difficulty and the breakdown of the brother. (Well, it's not just her, it's also his gambling.)
Emmet: Right. But the scene in act three, where she goes from wanting to help the poor in the fire to throwing the old nanny out on the street, still sticks with me. It was a powerful moment. That kind of emotional switch is hard to pull off.
Elly: Yes, she carried that moment really well.
Emmet: Well, I'll be curious what other people think, since it still has a couple of weeks left in its run. But for those who aren't going to see it, there’s always this.
Photograph by Michael Brosilow / Courtesy of Steppenwolf