Caitlin Johnston, Nadia Sepsenwol, and Mariana Newhard as Irina, Maria and Helen (Photo: Samantha Walsh)

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.

Like Three Sisters, By Rights features three sisters who live in a provincial town but yearn for the capital. Maria, Helen, and Irina’s love lives parallel their Chekhovian doppelgangers, as do many of their choices and outcomes. Though I rarely occasionally enjoy a night of Chekhov, I was initially trepidatious at the prospect of two and three quarters hours of marital ennui and “theater of mood.” On the other hand, I thought, shifting the scene to small town Ohio, a mise-en-scène with which I am well familiar, is a daring choice. Moreover, the writers Nadia Sepsenwol and Tim Van Dyck would have to transcend translation and rise to the level of extended allusion to make this choice work. I was curious to see if they could do it.

That is to say, By Rights would have to walk a thin tightrope between a too literal imitation of the original and a too free interpretation. On the one hand, transporting the Prozorovs to the Midwest and simply dropping them there would be ridiculous. Though some political parties (whose name I won’t mention, but you know who they are) want to bring back indentured labor and landed elites, they haven’t yet accomplished this in Ohio. Unfortunately, much of the Prozorovs’ ennui is the product of the decay of the minor Russian aristocracy. On the other hand, what fun is there in updating a “classic” play if you discard everything that doesn’t make sense in the modern world?

As one scholar put the problem recently: “one of the main problems in handling allusion is the difficulty of knowing where to stop. A text alluded to already has its own context, and it is not always clear whether, and to what degree, this first context should fade into the background, or whether it might be pertinent to remember it in its new context.” But, aside from a couple of incongruities, Sepsenwol and Van Dyck make the old material fresh and present a strong case for the universality of experience depicted in the play. There are moments of real interpretive (allusional?) genius, as when Vershinin’s optimistic speech about the progress of mankind is given to Nick, the analog of Tusenbach. Nick’s rant about the awesomeness of “the singularity” is common enough in educated, bourgeois circles in the Flyover to make a poignant statement about humankind’s continuing fascination with technology. More to the point, it was a necessary choice, because Alex, Vershinin’s analog, is an Iraq / Afghanistan war veteran, who no one in contemporary America would expect to be a 19th century, European philosopher warrior.

There are some remaining incongruities, however, that don’t fit the modernized, Midwestern conceit. The elderly servant woman Anna made the crossing from Russia to America, which is a little baffling, because I can’t remember a single middle class Ohioan family with a Russian servant. (She kept her accent in the move too.) Explaining why the family has a house is also problematic. In the original play, it’s an aristocratic estate. Here, the deceased patriarch bought it after working in a steel mill. The bourgeois angst central to Chekhov’s play comes from an old, well-established family losing its status as they go from gentry to “professional” working class. It would make more sense if our novo-Prozorovs came from a long line of country lawyers who were now forced to be unionized and abused public school teachers. Fortunately, Sepsenwol and Van Dyck did not try to follow Chekhov’s precedent and turn Andy, Andrey’s analog, into a mid-level manager at a paper mill in Akron. The something lost from not having Natasha to beat up on as a nouveau riche striver is compensated for by a very realistic and energetic performance by Brenden Spieth as a typical Midwestern man-child, addicted to video games and weed.

Ultimately the greatest risk — and the greatest reward — was the playwrights’ decision to stage the duel between Nick and Victor. In Three Sisters the duel follows classical prescription and happens offstage. When I realized that we were going to see the rivals for Irina’s love try to end their antagonism like civilized men — with guns at twenty paces — my critical hackles started to rise. The last duel in America (according to Wikipedia) was in 1887. And that makes sense, because dueling is soooo nineteenth century. But in 2012 in Northern Ohio? C’mon. But when the smoke cleared — literally — I had to admit that they cleverly scored points on both Americans’ love of guns and keeping the allusion alive.

With regard to the Theatre of Mood, the actors (Ms. Sepsenwol plays Maria) deftly set the mood square in the center of the imaginative space of the play. The angst was palpable, and in the actors’ mouths, the dialogue was pitch perfect. One thing contemporary Americans don’t like is long-winded artistry, but I was captivated by the drama, which kept my attention throughout. Much credit should go to Mr. Diercksen for keeping the actors on their cues. There were no long digressions or haltingly delivered lines. The pace skipped along until the final tragic moment. Over all By Rights We Should Be Giants successfully walked the line between tradition and innovation.

By Rights We Should Be Giants

At The Secret Theatre until Saturday.

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