Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a classic piece of theatre about people who waste their lives; if done well, it is lyrical, sad, and touching. It’s no wonder that Nadia Sepsenwol and Tim Van Dyck have decided to adapt it into a new play called By Rights We Should Be Giants (the title is a quote from The Cherry Orchard); and indeed Sepsenwol herself might have had other reasons for the adaptation, as she also plays Maria, the Masha analogue, a rather showy role (though fortunately, she has the acting chops to pull it off). This adaptation is set in Lorain, Ohio, from 2007-2009. The translated conceits are clever, especially for fans of the original, who can watch as the longed-for Moscow becomes New York, as warnings of ecological collapse become warnings of The Singularity, the soldiers are home from Afghanistan, and so forth. But halfway through the play, the Chekhovian realist unities and subtleties are exploded, and the writers begin to more freely re-imagine the modern ideas and relationships in short overlapping scenes that, though inspired by Three Sisters, often depict events which are only mentioned or hinted at in the original. The play is quite ingenious, in a time-traveling sort of way: Bringing the characters slowly through to more modern means of expression provides a sort of meta-commentary on the original play. Though it’s not always successful; occasionally it seems that certain events and lines only appear because they happened in the original, but due to the changes here appear sans context, and later in the piece (which is 3 hours long) these shout-outs feel tacked-on and tedious (and probably confusing to anyone not familiar with the source). I also would have liked to have seen more of the character of Allison (Leah Walsh), a lesbian soldier with an obvious crush on Irina; a relationship, or at least closeness, is hinted at, but barely explored.
The cast is pretty much excellent. Mariana Newhard, as the lonely oldest sister Helen, gives a hilariously put-upon deadpan performance. Sepsenwol gives an angry and visceral performance as Maria. Caitlin Johnson is a flighty presence as Irina, oblivious to everyone but herself and her collegiate pain, especially those in the cast who are in love with her. George Salazar is a great young awkward academic and longtime friend-who-is-a-boy-but-is-not-a-boyfriend of Irina’s. Casey Robinson is hilarious and frightening as the possibly-autistic, possibly-sociopathic Victor. Brendan Speith hits just the right notes between adorable and terrible that makes the audience realize why his sisters still love him despite his wastrel ways (and playing the ukulele doesn’t hurt). Michael Schantz is a powerful and sexy presence as Alex, the Vershinin role.
Christopher Diercksen directs steadily, keeping the action moving on Jonathan Cottle’s first-realistic, then not set. Kristen M. Singer’s costume design is well-thought-out and great. Sound design by Beth Lake is very effective throughout.
By Rights We Should be Giants
The Secret Theatre (4402 23rd Street between 44th Avenue and 44th Road, Long Island City)
October 18-November 3; Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm (no performance Wednesday, October 31).
Tickets ($18) may be purchased online at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444.