THREE SISTERS (Translated from the original by Anton Chekhov)

Based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron with Natasha Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati

Transplanted from their beloved Moscow to a provincial Russian town, three sisters—school teacher Olga, unhappily married Masha, idealistic Irina—yearn for the city of their childhood, where they imagine their lives will be transformed and fulfilled. Three Sisters is the portrait of a family grappling with the bittersweet distance between reality and dreams.

Three Sisters received is world premiere in 2009 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, directed by John Doyle. It was co-produced in 2011 at Berkeley Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre in 2011. Both productions were directed by Les Waters.

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When Cincinnati Playhouse approached me to translate The Three Sisters I was both terrified and happy. Terrified, because I don’t speak Russian and I love the play; happy, because I don’t speak Russian and I love the play. As such, I thought: I will learn from a great master, and I will try to learn Russian, a language I have always wanted to learn. They said: we need it in six months. So I thought: I won’t learn Russian. But I will learn from a great master, with some help. As it turns out, quite a lot of help. Let me explain about all of my help.


The night before I first met John Doyle, the director of the project, I was at a fund-raiser. My husband and I were seated with New York business moguls who often attend fund-raisers. I glanced to my left. Three chairs down was a woman wearing a flowing red silk shirt, and she had very long tapered fingers. The hands of a poet, I thought. She didn’t exactly look bored, but she looked intriguing. Who is this woman? I must move chairs, I thought. I moved chairs over dessert. It turns out the woman was a Russian scholar and an extraordinary playwright/director named Elise Thoron. We got to talking about Chekhov and his luminosity, transparency, and spareness, which is often lost in translation. It was serendipity. After I met with John, I asked if Elise could come on as my Russian language conduit. He, and the theater, happily agreed.


Meanwhile, I went to Los Angeles for a family vacation where my in-laws live. My sister-in-law Natasha who is a native Russian speaker sat down with me and read to me from the original. We sat on her stoop while her baby slept and while her twelve year old daughter Masha showed us Tae Kwan Do kicks. That Masha asked: what did the other Masha say? Natasha gave me literal translations of the idioms—as when Solyony says: pull my finger, meaning, just as it does in this country, make me fart, which the more polite translations usually cover, making Solyony seem completely opaque. Or when Masha says: Life is a raspberry! I wanted to keep the raspberry, even though it’s not readily accessible in English. Working with Natasha, it became clear to me that getting to the root of the original Russian was what I wanted, rather than putting my own authorial stamp on the text. I wanted to get as far away from a “stamp” as possible. I desperately needed a native speaker for things like: a word in act four that could either mean “a metal lid on top of steaming food” or “the kind of hat an entertainer would wear when performing for a czar.”

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