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Theatre faculty, students bring contemporary translation of Chekhov to life

July 29, 2014

  • Photo by Owen Carey
  • Photo by Owen Carey

With help from a handful of Lewis & Clark students and alumni, as well as resources from Fir Acres Theatre, Professor of Theatre Štěpán Šimek and Assistant Professor of Theatre Rebecca Lingafelter will stage a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, returning to the “fierce sparseness” of the original Russian in a new English translation. Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) will premiere the play in August at Reed College’s Diver Studio Theatre.

To produce his contemporary translation, Šimek worked from Chekhov’s original Russian script, trading the complex words and haphazard punctuation of earlier English translations for direct language and dramatic pauses. Stripping the text to actions and simple words, Šimek unearthed parallels to modern America’s economic recession, disappearing middle class, and gridlock in government.

“Unlike the prevailing and–as far as I’m concerned–somewhat ‘orientalist’ view of Chekhov’s plays as the supreme expression of aimless boredom and emotional suffering of ‘soulful’ Russians of another time and place,” Šimek writes, “I understand the plays as active, fast paced, and immensely relatable stories of characters who seem to be literally ‘glued’ to the floor of their existence and who are working as hard as they can to ‘unglue’ themselves from that existence.”

Such a vigorous translation, Šimek and Lingafelter reasoned, must come to life. Working with PETE, the professors also enlisted the help of their students. Charlotte Markle ’15 prepared the final draft of the translation, sharpened the language, and helped actors build their characters. During rehearsals, she worked as assistant director, making adjustments along with Šimek. Anashkusha Beauchamp ’16 documented the translation process, observed the performers’ relationship to the new translation, and understudied the main female characters.

Other Lewis & Clark students and alumni are also integral to the production. Richard Kimmerle ’16 works as assistant stage manager. Jake Simonds BA ’14 takes on the role of Fedotik, a soldier with an artistic bent, and Jahnavi Caldwell-Green BA ’12 plays Natasha, the sister-in-law who gradually takes over the house where the three sisters lived.

The performers will play demanding roles. In the aggressive Russian of Šimek’s translation, “the soul of the characters is revealed in physical actions of the body and the voice.” The performance style of PETE and Simek’s translation call for muscular acting; their characters use only words they mean.

“We sincerely believe that the translation may change the way the American theatre makers are looking at Chekhov,” Šimek and Lingafelter write. “We plan to put such an audacious claim to the test by giving the play a professional production.”

Caleb Diehl ’16 contributed to this story.

Theatre Department Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

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