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To some extent all theatrical performance is translation. The author — the person with an original idea — puts words on the page, and the performers, including the director, the actors, the design team and the techs, translate those words from page to stage. In the case of The Great Plays of Western Culture, the play may have been written in a language folks in the audience can’t understand, in which case the play must be literally translated. And when the culture the play was produced in is almost as historically alien to the audience as the language, the play must be brought up to date. Christopher Diercksen’s production of By Rights We Should Be Giants is more than just a modernized translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters however; it is an attempt to rise above translation and totally reimagine the play, from alpha to omega.
In The Seeing Place Theater’s production of Chekov’s Three Sisters the birch trees, rendered abstractly on a back wall of the dilapidated ATA Sergeant Theater on 53rd Street, are uncanny sentinels, observers whose angular geometry comments on the gap between the characters’ hopes and the shifts they are forced to accept to cope with life’s capricious freaks. The company strives for a similar effect in the props and staging. The first thing you notice when you take your seat are labels in the place of theatrical property: a piece of paper with “Book” in black marker, a wooden bench labeled “Olga’s Bed” and a wooden block tagged “CLOCK.” Director Brandon Walker amplifies these Brechtian touches by requiring the stage manager to sit upstage from the actors and give cues to a tech sitting in the booth throughout the performance.
The cast of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov barely fits in the Red Room on West 4th St. There are fourteen actors (14), who represent over a third of the living creatures in the tiny space on top of KGB bar. The play is also crammed full of personalities: the sisters of the title, their brother, his wife, the alcoholic doctor, the Baron, his ill-mannered friend, the school teacher, two soldiers, the elderly female servant, the elderly male servant, and the artilery commander. It’s a lot of emotion to pack into a space the size of a one bedroom apartment.
Like a silvery, slippery sardine is kind of how you feel when you sit down, elbow to elbow with other viewers, and with your knees poking into the actors. (The seats are set in the round, so to speak, on the perimeter of the play space that stretches the length of the floor.) This is not in-your-face, interactive theater like De La Guarda, where the performers dance with the audience during the performance, but I get the feeling that the large company, the director Jess Chayes, and the set designer Nicolas Benacerraf were making a virtue of necessity when they wrapped the audience around the players in an almost uncomfortable embrace.